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← Who Says Science has Nothing to Say About Morality?

Who Says Science has Nothing to Say About Morality? - Comments

Cents's Avatar Comment 1 by Cents

Just want to be the first to say. Great. Really looking forward to watching this!

Wed, 04 May 2011 23:47:39 UTC | #623151

vaister's Avatar Comment 2 by vaister

"Science is interesting. If you don't agree you can fuck up!"

Wed, 04 May 2011 23:58:19 UTC | #623154

robaylesbury's Avatar Comment 3 by robaylesbury

I was there. Compelling evening. Beautiful venue.

Thu, 05 May 2011 00:01:31 UTC | #623156

The Plc's Avatar Comment 4 by The Plc

This is also available as an episode of the Pod Delusion podcast.

Thu, 05 May 2011 00:01:44 UTC | #623157

MilitantNonStampCollector's Avatar Comment 5 by MilitantNonStampCollector

Comment 2 by vaister :

"Science is interesting. If you don't agree you can fuck up!"


Don't you mean OFF?

Great to see Harris and Dawkins together like this ,can't wait to watch.

Thu, 05 May 2011 00:15:56 UTC | #623163

ZenDruid's Avatar Comment 6 by ZenDruid

Comment 5 by Derek M :

Comment 2 by vaister :

"Science is interesting. If you don't agree you can fuck up!"

Don't you mean OFF?

Great to see Harris and Dawkins together like this ,can't wait to watch.

Well, if you don't agree with the method, you'll fuck up. ;)

Thu, 05 May 2011 00:25:58 UTC | #623168

sciencehead78's Avatar Comment 7 by sciencehead78

Thoroughly enjoyable, well done Richard and well done Sam. The point about Jesus and his apostles having so much less access to information to base decisions on was so apt as I once again tap into great conversations from overseas in the comfort of my sofa.

Thu, 05 May 2011 00:55:03 UTC | #623174

NakedCelt's Avatar Comment 8 by NakedCelt

Video stops for me at 0:56:49, and (so far) won't continue.

Thu, 05 May 2011 01:12:42 UTC | #623179

Steven Rabson's Avatar Comment 9 by Steven Rabson

I think I get Comment 2 Zen Droid, Vaister was playing with RD's Fxck=OFF speach and wrote UP, in that you will be F_ing UP if you dont get science, lol.

Thu, 05 May 2011 01:28:45 UTC | #623183

NakedCelt's Avatar Comment 10 by NakedCelt

(Problem resolved by reloading and starting at that point. Wouldn't let me edit my previous comment to say so.)

Thu, 05 May 2011 01:36:12 UTC | #623186

RDfan's Avatar Comment 11 by RDfan

So, Sam is basically saying this: in the same way that medicine, the science of the body, shows us what is good and bad for our bodies, neuroscience, the science of the mind, will be able to provide advice on what is good and bad for our minds, right?

Am I missing something?

The only, though significant problem, AFAIK, is that medicine deals with physical ailments, something that we know much about, whereas neuroscience deals with mind-states, something that is still shrouded in much mystery. In other words, genes are much easier to understand than memes, at this stage in history.

If so, it seems like Sam and other neuroscientists are still at the same stage that medical doctors were at before the germ theory of disease or the gene/dna as the unit of replication was understood. With any luck Sam and his colleagues will one day discover the double-helix - or whatever it turns out to be - structure of thought (and, by extension, morality).

Thu, 05 May 2011 01:49:33 UTC | #623189

reebus's Avatar Comment 12 by reebus

Comment 11 by RDfan :

So, Sam is basically saying this: in the same way that medicine, the science of the body, shows us what is good and bad for our bodies, neuroscience, the science of the mind, will be able to provide advice on what is good and bad for our minds, right?

No I think doing that is called the Naturalistic fallacy.

I think its more about discovering the nature of the mind and how it can be compromised so we can be aware of those weaknesses and quirks so we don't ourselves become compromised by them.

Thu, 05 May 2011 01:58:35 UTC | #623192

Benjamin O'Donnell's Avatar Comment 13 by Benjamin O'Donnell

Comment 12 by reebus :

Comment 11 by RDfan :

So, Sam is basically saying this: in the same way that medicine, the science of the body, shows us what is good and bad for our bodies, neuroscience, the science of the mind, will be able to provide advice on what is good and bad for our minds, right?

No I think doing that is called the Naturalistic fallacy.

I think its more about discovering the nature of the mind and how it can be compromised so we can be aware of those weaknesses and quirks so we don't ourselves become compromised by them.

Actually, I think part of Sam's argument is that the so-called "naturalistic fallacy" is not a fallacy at all - or at least that some arguments that have been widely condemned as committing the naturalistic fallacy (including by GE Moore, the originator of the term) don't.

I think there are two parts of Sam's argument that his Hume-ean critics miss or downplay.

First, the analogy with medicine. "Health" is at least as vague and protean a concept as Sam's "wellbeing". Yet we use health and various proxy measures of it as the basis of modern medicine. No one suggests that the vagueness of the concept of "health" means that science has nothing to say about medicine, or that science can't determine medical values. If medicine is a science (an applied science) then so can ethics be.

And that phrase "medial values" leads us to the second aspect of Sam's recent work - his emphasis on the intimate connection between facts and values - even in science. Sam says we can't get at facts without holding certain values - and here Sam comes perilously close to sounding like a post-modernist, but in the other direction. This is the part I need to think about some more.

I'm reminded of a talk or essay promoted on Pharyngula a few years ago by Sarah Watson or Jen McCreight or one of the other cool younger sciencey gnus. It was about the intimate connection between science and human rights and, IIRC, seemed to be making the similar point that the scientific method is a kind of ethics.

Also seems to tie in somehow with William Clifford's 19th century essay "The Ethics of Belief".

I need to find time to think this through...

Thu, 05 May 2011 02:30:28 UTC | #623199

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 14 by Steve Zara

First, the analogy with medicine. "Health" is at least as vague and protean a concept as Sam's "wellbeing". Yet we use health and various proxy measures of it as the basis of modern medicine. No one suggests that the vagueness of the concept of "health" means that science has nothing to say about medicine, or that science can't determine medical values. If medicine is a science (an applied science) then so can ethics be.

The medicine analogy fails for an interesting reason. We do use science to measure proxies of health, but that doesn't always give us enough information about what to do. That's why we have medical ethics committees and similar groups.

We can use science to measure well-being, but it can't determine our values for us because there can be conflicts between the well-being of groups. We can have the value that well-being should be maximised, but we need "meta-values" to decide how we approach that maximisation.

Just to give one example, think of redistributive taxation. Do we reduce the well-being of some (albeit not by much) to increase the well-being of others? We can have, theoretically, detailed scientific information about how well-being will be impacted by a certain policy, but we still need to decide whether or not to go ahead with that policy.

Our moral values are political facts. Science can, and should, inform politics, but it can't ultimately tell you who to vote for, because we all have different priorities and we are in different situations.

Thu, 05 May 2011 02:51:05 UTC | #623202

prolibertas's Avatar Comment 15 by prolibertas

@ Benjamin O'Donnell

It's not postmodernism. Sam's just arguing that values are simply facts about what we ought to do. So in science we value reason, falsifiability, parsimony, etc., which is saying nothing more than that it is a fact that we ought to rely on reason, falsifiability, parsimony if we want to figure out truth.

@ Steve Zara

Every time I see you comment on a Sam-oriented thread you cite your reason for objecting to his moral theory, but each time you seem to have a different objection... what happened to the old ones? It's almost like you're scrambling for any objection, hoping that one day one of them will stick.

Medical ethics committees will still be about health (what else?) And yes there can be unanswerable zero-sum scenarios, but this is no different to the fact that there are very likely certain cosmological truths that will never be answered (doesn't make us give up on all cosmology). And yes, even with detailed scientific information we will still need to make a decision as to whether or not we go ahead with a given policy, but our choice will merely be between making a good decision (one based on the scientific information about it) or a bad decision (one that is not). If science is telling us that a certain decision will increase well-being the best, then science is telling us that that decision is good, and if it's telling us that that decision is good, then it's telling us that we ought to do it. You could say that technically science is telling us no such thing in and of itself about what we ought to do, but you would be being pedantic. To all intents and purposes science would be telling us exactly such a thing, and to deny this is worthless.

Thu, 05 May 2011 05:07:58 UTC | #623217

kantastisk's Avatar Comment 16 by kantastisk

I've read The Moral Landscape but I'm still struggling to understand some essential points. Harris says morality is about maximizing well-being. He also says that some cultures are better at doing this than others (and I'd have to agree).

But exactly what is the answer to the problem of people having their definition of well-being somewhat redefined by culture? I mean redefined in the sense that they actually experience well-being from slightly different things than I do. "Throwing battery acid in little girls faces" isn't protected by this speculation, and I agree it's important to remind people of that. But isn't it a problem for the theory that culture might change a person's definition of well-being, if only slightly?

Thu, 05 May 2011 05:17:47 UTC | #623218

AlanS's Avatar Comment 17 by AlanS

It strikes me that this argument of minimising or moving away from "the worst possible misery for everyone" is merely an inverse way of stating the central axiom of Utilitarianism. It follows then that Utilitarianism is the most moral way of conducting our affairs. But this surely is not true. Often moral choices (sacrificing one innocent for the salvation of many for example) compromise morality. The betrayal of one person so that many may live is a kind of moral cowardice. Utilitarianism is, in my opinion, amoral. Since the subsequent arguments are based on this fallacy the entire argument must collapse.

Thu, 05 May 2011 05:34:40 UTC | #623219

Sample's Avatar Comment 18 by Sample

Sam Harris challenges me to think about ideas that often results in leaving me with enumerable though elusive conjectures that are frustratingly addictive. I'm really not sure what to make of this man except that the topology of my own well-being seems to require finding that out.

Mike

/Edit: AlanS, yes, I too was thinking precisely of utilitarianism. And on another tangent, of Brian Green who I think has a similar scientifically philosophical approach as Sam Harris when he describes maximizing the utility of observation in preference to simply acquiring all information as discussed in the Elegant Universe (or at least my understanding of his position). Anyway, thank you for bringing up utility.

Thu, 05 May 2011 06:42:25 UTC | #623227

Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 19 by Peter Grant

Been looking forward to watching this :D

Comment 14 by Steve Zara

We can use science to measure well-being, but it can't determine our values for us because there can be conflicts between the well-being of groups. We can have the value that well-being should be maximised, but we need "meta-values" to decide how we approach that maximisation.

Science can study the "meta-values" which have been naturally selected for over time. We can then analyse how those work and improve on them.

Comment 16 by kantastisk

But isn't it a problem for the theory that culture might change a person's definition of well-being, if only slightly?

A person's definition of well-being can be wrong, they may simply be unaware of all the greater forms well-being out there.

Comment 17 by AlanS

The betrayal of one person so that many may live is a kind of moral cowardice.

What is your basis for such absolute moral certainty?

Thu, 05 May 2011 06:53:19 UTC | #623229

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 20 by Jos Gibbons

AlanS, I think your equating consequentialism with utilitarianism is unwarranted. The argument you gave against utilitarianism is one of many examples of how on measure of well-being conflicts with another. Harris discusses in this speech many examples of this happening at length. His essential point when doing so is that consequentialism can be expanded to accommodate our complete set of metrics.

Thu, 05 May 2011 07:04:10 UTC | #623232

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 21 by Steve Zara

Every time I see you comment on a Sam-oriented thread you cite your reason for objecting to his moral theory, but each time you seem to have a different objection... what happened to the old ones? It's almost like you're scrambling for any objection, hoping that one day one of them will stick.

This is a strange ad-hominem non-response! It's called refining your ideas. It's what can happen through engagement in discussions. It's moving from having a vague feeling that something is wrong with an idea to finding out why you have that feeling, and in what ways it is shared with others.

Medical ethics committees will still be about health (what else?) And yes there can be unanswerable zero-sum scenarios, but this is no different to the fact that there are very likely certain cosmological truths that will never be answered (doesn't make us give up on all cosmology).

The problem is that these unanswerable scenarios are not rare exceptions, they are normal everyday problems in ethics.

And yes, even with detailed scientific information we will still need to make a decision as to whether or not we go ahead with a given policy, but our choice will merely be between making a good decision (one based on the scientific information about it) or a bad decision (one that is not).

No, that's not the point at all. For example, choosing between two different taxation regimes isn't following scientific information in one case and ignoring it in another. It's having full scientific information in both cases and yet having to apply non-scientific values to make a choice.

Thu, 05 May 2011 07:38:00 UTC | #623238

sunbeamforjeebus's Avatar Comment 22 by sunbeamforjeebus

I was there and it was a memorable evening.I have just finished reading The Moral Landscape and it was a little hard going at times,but the gist is that universal well being although subjective and coloured by culture is largely based upon physical measures,therefore scientifically determinable.Who could argue that throwing acid in the face of little girls for wanting to learn to read,is not a reasonable way to achieve any sort of well-being.Yes, of coure this is simplyfying the theory with an extreme example but for me the book and it's central topic stand up.

Thu, 05 May 2011 08:17:01 UTC | #623247

kantastisk's Avatar Comment 23 by kantastisk

Comment 19 by Peter Grant :

Comment 16 by kantastisk

But isn't it a problem for the theory that culture might change a person's definition of well-being, if only slightly?

A person's definition of well-being can be wrong, they may simply be unaware of all the greater forms well-being out there.

Right, so how does Harris know that it's not possible to culturally change minds to the extent that they experience genuine, "high" (Harris-approved?) well-being from things that may be variable across cultures?

I don't mean the question rhetorically, it's quite sincere: How did he discover this? What's the argument?

Thu, 05 May 2011 08:58:04 UTC | #623260

AlanS's Avatar Comment 24 by AlanS

Comment 17 by AlanS

The betrayal of one person so that many may live is a kind of moral cowardice.

What is your basis for such absolute moral certainty?

You're absolutely right to question this of course. To answer the question directly, this moral certainty comes directly from my Judeo-Christian upbringing (brainwashing). Perhaps I would be better trying to justify this statement using rationalist arguments. I am sure I could make the case for this particular moral dilemma but it would not be as well argued as those of "professional" philosophers, but your comment and this lecture have certainly made me think about my approach to morality.

Thu, 05 May 2011 09:17:34 UTC | #623262

Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 25 by Peter Grant

Comment 23 by kantastisk

Comment 19 by Peter Grant :

A person's definition of well-being can be wrong, they may simply be unaware of all the greater forms of well-being out there.

Right, so how does Harris know that it's not possible to culturally change minds to the extent that they experience genuine, "high" (Harris-approved?) well-being from things that may be variable across cultures?

I think he is counting on the the fact that it is possible to change minds, that's phase three of the project he refers to.

Thu, 05 May 2011 09:46:41 UTC | #623267

Noble Savage's Avatar Comment 26 by Noble Savage

Comment 14 by Steve Zara :

First, the analogy with medicine. "Health" is at least as vague and protean a concept as Sam's "wellbeing". Yet we use health and various proxy measures of it as the basis of modern medicine. No one suggests that the vagueness of the concept of "health" means that science has nothing to say about medicine, or that science can't determine medical values. If medicine is a science (an applied science) then so can ethics be.

The medicine analogy fails for an interesting reason. We do use science to measure proxies of health, but that doesn't always give us enough information about what to do. That's why we have medical ethics committees and similar groups. We can use science to measure well-being, but it can't determine our values for us because there can be conflicts between the well-being of groups. We can have the value that well-being should be maximised, but we need "meta-values" to decide how we approach that maximisation.

Just to give one example, think of redistributive taxation. Do we reduce the well-being of some (albeit not by much) to increase the well-being of others? We can have, theoretically, detailed scientific information about how well-being will be impacted by a certain policy, but we still need to decide whether or not to go ahead with that policy. Our moral values are political facts. Science can, and should, inform politics, but it can't ultimately tell you who to vote for, because we all have different priorities and we are in different situations.

Can't we just ask "will this increase well being?" at every junction?

Thu, 05 May 2011 09:58:01 UTC | #623270

Marcus Small's Avatar Comment 27 by Marcus Small

Is Sam Harris giving into a need for moral certainty? Having walked away from the moral landscape presented by religion, he seems to be looking to science to provide a moral meta-narrative and therefore a new set of moral certainties. Question is do we need such moral absolutes. Can we not accept that we find ourselves somewhere between complete ignorance and total knowing, and there fore all our attempts to say anything about the world are contingent.

Thu, 05 May 2011 10:21:08 UTC | #623276

Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 28 by Peter Grant

Comment 27 by Marcus Small

Is Sam Harris giving into a need for moral certainty? Having walked away from the moral landscape presented by religion, he seems to be looking to science to provide a moral meta-narrative. Question is do we need such moral absolutes. Can we not accept that we find ourselves somewhere between complete ignorance and total knowing, and there fore all our attempts to say anything about the world are contingent.

There is a difference between moral objectivism and moral absolutism.

Thu, 05 May 2011 10:28:49 UTC | #623277

michaelfaulkner101's Avatar Comment 29 by michaelfaulkner101

For anyone interested in looking at the whole fact value thing in more philosophical depth I recommend Hilary Putnam’s collapse of the fact value dichotomy. Putnam argues that the distinction between facts and values should not be seen as absolute. He traces the history of this to Hume, explains what Hume meant and the significance of his arguments. Putnam I think, comprehensively shows why the dichotomy between facts and values is ontologically, methodologically and epistemologically unsustainable.

While it is academic philosophy book it is very easy to read as it is taken from a series of lectures that Putnam gave.

One further points: firstly, not everyone in the philosophical community supports the fact/value distinction. Many of the important developments in late 20th century analytic philosophy directly and indirectly cast doubt on it. Caveat - denying the distinction I should note does not automatically mean that one is a moral realist or a consequentialist - those are separate issues.

Thu, 05 May 2011 10:42:50 UTC | #623280

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 30 by AtheistEgbert

Unfortunately, the term 'wellbeing' is an abstraction and not an experience or a substance. If it is a theory of morality, then what is the evidence that supports it?

A bad apple may be rotten, but that does not mean it's immoral or evil.

If we are root morality in experience, then surely we must root them within emotions? There is an emotion called sympathy, which can provide us with evidence for a theory of morality. In fact, such a theory already exists, it's called 'care'. Care leads to humanitarianism, and so a practical morality already exists.

However, let's not confuse morality with justice. What Harris does consistently, is use his theory of morality, based on no scientific evidence, only philosophical reasoning, and then confuses it both with morality and justice.

Justice is about restoring some kind of balance from the harm done by people. It's not about morality at all, and sometimes the actions required to restore this balance are actually harmful to the people who have caused harm (such as punishing them).

It concerns me that Harris persists on with his idealism, not really listening to his critics. While I think naturalistic explanation for morality and justice is important, we already have two practical solutions: humanitarianism and the law.

Thu, 05 May 2011 11:09:07 UTC | #623286