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Science can answer moral questions - Comments

Saerain's Avatar Comment 1 by Saerain

I normally have something, however tiny and trivial, to disagree with Sam on, but this is 100% brilliant, in my mind.

It was also uploaded to YouTube less than a minute after I wondered to myself where he's been. Clearly, the universe bends to my will. Saerain 2012.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 19:15:00 UTC | #451187

Quine's Avatar Comment 2 by Quine

This presentation by Sam is terrific. I was at the debate with Deepak Chopra where I noticed that Sam is so much better (IMHO) focused and organized in his arguments than the Sam of just a few years ago. He is no longer trying to "fly under the radar" or other attempts to avoid facing the issues straight on. For me, this is very encouraging. GO SAM!!

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 19:27:00 UTC | #451190

edezu's Avatar Comment 3 by edezu

How and why "science can -- and should -- be an authority on moral issues" still beats me. Wonderful presentation though.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 19:53:00 UTC | #451201

The Plc's Avatar Comment 4 by The Plc

The neocon appeasing rot in 'The End of Faith' is enough to make me sceptical of Harris' thoughts on morality, but I'll give this a whirl later.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 19:55:00 UTC | #451202

stanleygarden's Avatar Comment 5 by stanleygarden

I don't know whether the host was playing the devil's advocate or he was in fact a true moral relativist...although his use of the term "Cultural imperialism" suggests to me the latter..

I totally agree with Sam, there is no reason why something like "depression" can be considered a psychological or medical condition anf therefore within the scope of science, but something like "sadness" or even "happiness" are deemed a values the lay somewhere out of our rational or scientific reach..

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 19:55:00 UTC | #451203

ColdFusionLazarus's Avatar Comment 6 by ColdFusionLazarus

That didn't take long, Quine. Your powers of prophesy are very good. Thanks for the link on the Quebecers thread. The talk is good. Fairly simple points, but surprisingly important. It's so difficult to get religious people to accept that (without their old book) there are ways to decide what is wrong and right (or what is better and what is worse).

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 19:55:00 UTC | #451204

robaylesbury's Avatar Comment 7 by robaylesbury

Crisp, concise, brilliant. 23mins and 7secs well spent.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 19:57:00 UTC | #451206

John Yates's Avatar Comment 8 by John Yates

Indeed, whether or not the dude at the end was playing Devil's Advocate is up for debate. Always a real pleasure to listen to Sam Harris. Far too short- I could listen to him talk all day long.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 20:02:00 UTC | #451208

MattHunX's Avatar Comment 9 by MattHunX

I was wondering what Harris has been up to.

The last I heard from him was on that debate between him, Hitchens, Dennett Vs. D'Souza, Shmu(ck)ley and some other guy.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 20:13:00 UTC | #451215

LWS's Avatar Comment 10 by LWS

This is an excellent and well reasoned presentation.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 21:04:00 UTC | #451230

Chrysippus_Maximus's Avatar Comment 11 by Chrysippus_Maximus

This sort of thing only gets off the ground if all knowledge is receptive (i.e., empirical), but science itself presupposes non-empirical forms of knowledge in organisms (i.e., instinct).

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 21:17:00 UTC | #451236

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 12 by Jos Gibbons

Comment #471343 by Spinoza

Nonsense. Instinct is just behaviour originating in genetics popularized over evolutionary history by its functional effects' efficacy in getting those genes replicated. Even if animals achieve this through beliefs, without that being absurd anthropomorphism, these would still be not so much examples of knowledge as useful beliefs (which are sometimes not even true, and there's much more to knowledge than true belief). And, indeed, what makes such beliefs useful is their practical alignment with what genes endure, which sounds pretty empirical to me. In any case, how would any of these things you're claiming harm what Harris says?

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 21:41:00 UTC | #451240

bethe123's Avatar Comment 13 by bethe123

What rubbish.

What does science say about the thorny question of RD saying grace?

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 21:49:00 UTC | #451241

Quetzalcoatl's Avatar Comment 14 by Quetzalcoatl

bethe123-

What rubbish.


What, precisely, is rubbish?

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 22:05:00 UTC | #451246

Sciros's Avatar Comment 15 by Sciros

What, precisely, is rubbish?
bethe123's attempt at playful humor, apparently. :ducks:

By the way the image that the video up top is frozen at makes it look like Sam is holding a big Rambo knife. If you cross him (no pun intended) he will cut you.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 22:08:00 UTC | #451247

Quetzalcoatl's Avatar Comment 16 by Quetzalcoatl

Sciros-

That's the big knife he uses for his neuroscience work. Cutting edge stuff.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 22:14:00 UTC | #451248

TIKI AL's Avatar Comment 17 by TIKI AL

Would placing Rush Limpballs head in a vice and tightening it be an example of morally sound science?

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 22:25:00 UTC | #451250

kantastisk's Avatar Comment 18 by kantastisk

I sympathize with this generally, although I can't help but feel a bit uneasy.
Some moral taboos are probably very dangerous to break - even if it appears as the rational thing to do.

I do consider myself morally progressive, I'm just saying that with the ideal of purely rationalist morals comes the task of establishing them on purely rational ground. Surely popular talks themselves are not the way to do that. Populist politics doesn't seem like the safe bet either and philosophy has been on it for ages already. I agree that scientific knowledge is the way to inform a moral debate. But how exactly is science itself supposed to provide us with rational moral theory? I mean how would the formal procedure go?

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 23:02:00 UTC | #451255

bethe123's Avatar Comment 19 by bethe123

"Values are facts"

Rubbish.

Sam should learn to distinguish a fact from a presupposition.

If you want to assume -- i.e., make an arbitrary moral statement -- that certain things are good, such as the welfare of conscious beings, which seems to be his foundational ASSUMPTION and which is not shown by science -- then you can try to use science to facilitate an informed decision on how to act consistent with that assumption...But this is so obvious as to not be worth mentioning at TED.
There is always a value statement(s) that science does not address...but yes if you allow some foundational moral axioms, then science can be used to help answer moral questions based on these unproven moral axioms.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 23:10:00 UTC | #451257

Quetzalcoatl's Avatar Comment 20 by Quetzalcoatl

bethe123-

"Values are facts"


Roughly how far into the video was this, please?

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 23:24:00 UTC | #451260

Dace's Avatar Comment 22 by Dace

"If you want to assume -- i.e., make an arbitrary moral statement -- that certain things are good, such as the welfare of conscious beings, which seems to be his foundational ASSUMPTION and which is not shown by science -- then you can try to use science to facilitate an informed decision on how to act consistent with that assumption.."

Bethe123,
Given Sam's statement that he's never found a moral system that doesn't take conscious states to be important, isn't it rather unfair to suggest that his connection of morality to these states is *arbitrary*? It's obvious to me that the reason he's doing this is because the matter is generally agreed, not because he's helping himself to a prejudice on the nature of morality.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 23:37:00 UTC | #451262

bethe123's Avatar Comment 21 by bethe123

at 1:30 in the video-- "Values are a certain kind of fact"


i.e, values are facts -- according to Sam.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 23:37:00 UTC | #451261

SilentMike's Avatar Comment 23 by SilentMike

Sam Harris is a very strong speaker. He makes some strong points, but the idea of moral "facts" is a problematic one. If values of right and wrong are seen as simple objective facts, then the road to totalitarianism seems paved.

One has to take into account that knowledge of what right and wrong is partial. Individual freedom is a very strong value for me. A person should be allowed to make his/her own decisions, in most cases where others are not adversely affected. I'm sure Harris would agree that individual freedom is important in practice. But if there are all those ethical "facts" about well being out there then maybe society knows better than the person what is "good" for them.

Of course one might claim that the experience of choice is good for one's well being. But again, this idea of objective moral facts may lead to the conclusion that the mere appearance of choice is better since that would allow well being to be maximized without the risk of the person making the objectively "bad" choices. By Harris' logic this would be "good", by my ethics it would be a horrible reality to live in. But then again maybe I'm not much better ethically than Ted Bundy or the Taliban.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 23:38:00 UTC | #451263

bethe123's Avatar Comment 24 by bethe123

Given Sam's statement that he's never found a moral system that doesn't take conscious states to be important, isn't it rather unfair to suggest that his connection of morality to these states is *arbitrary*? It's obvious to me that the reason he's doing this is because the matter is generally agreed, not because he's helping himself to a prejudice on the nature of morality.



No. Sam is wrong.

Does a one celled animal have a consciousness?
To say humans are more valuable than such a creature is not answerable by science.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 23:47:00 UTC | #451267

Peacebeuponme's Avatar Comment 25 by Peacebeuponme

Why bother with this?

Science works whether it adds to moral understanding or not. Science can only be hindered by introducing moral ideas.

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 23:55:00 UTC | #451269

chuckg's Avatar Comment 26 by chuckg

I'll forth the idea that Sam seems to be getting better and better at speaking and conveying his ideas. Likewise with Richard. Funny how that is; we grow, get better at what we do with practice. Age matters amazingly little to the plastic brain.

Sam has terrific ideas about how brain scans may eventually allow definitive understanding of what is good for an individual, a small group, a village or a larger society. I suspect that some of the results will surprise and uncomfort us, with our Western ethnocentric reference frame. I hope the first people to get the scans are the flocks of religious missionaries in the third world. Maybe one result will be Mick Dundee's Aboriginal friends were right: "yes we should eat these men".

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 23:59:00 UTC | #451270

dochmbi's Avatar Comment 27 by dochmbi

Have to say I disagree with Sam Harris on this one. There's a reason why philosophy exists, you know.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is_ought_problem

Tue, 23 Mar 2010 00:04:00 UTC | #451272

mikerpiker's Avatar Comment 28 by mikerpiker

His talk should have been titled...

"Science can answer moral questions... assuming you're a utilitarian moral realist."

But whether or not you should be a utilitarian (or a moral realist) is a VERY contentious question, and it's one that I don't think science can answer (and Harris makes no argument that it can).

And even IF we assume utilitarianism, there are further questions unanswerable by science. As someone else eluded to, whose well-being matters? Should the well-being of all primates be considered equally important? Which is more important, average well-being, or aggregate well-being?

Tue, 23 Mar 2010 00:13:00 UTC | #451275

SilentMike's Avatar Comment 30 by SilentMike

28. Comment #471383 by mikerpiker

Which is more important, average well-being, or aggregate well-being?


And how do you quantify well-being anyway? Even if you can reach the conclusion that A>B how do you translate a feeling into a number so that you can sum all those numbers up or average them?

Tue, 23 Mar 2010 00:17:00 UTC | #451278

blitz442's Avatar Comment 29 by blitz442

24. Comment #471375 by bethe123

Does a one celled animal have a consciousness?


No, and therefore we have little if any moral obligations to it. Do you think that using consciousness as a criteria to determine moral obligations is merely arbitrary?

To say humans are more valuable than such a creature is not answerable by science.


I assume that you wash your hands from time to time. Each time you do, inordinate amounts of one-celled creatures (harmful and benign) are destroyed. Can you actually conceive of a rational moral system that would prohibit hand washing on the basis that it is wrong to favor human health over the lives of these simple organisms?

Or do you see no non-arbitrary difference at all between a system of ethics that allows handwashing (at the expense of simple organisms) and one that assigns the same right to life to a bacteria and a human?

Tue, 23 Mar 2010 00:17:00 UTC | #451277