Sam Harris Misses the Point Again

Sam Harris tells us how science can define morals

Typical non-sequitur

questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Throughout the book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape”—a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving—different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc.—will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing. I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question, or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery. Nor would it make the difference between being on a peak and being stuck deep in a valley any less clear or consequential.

Let's excuse for a moment the question of what comprises "the well-being of conscious creatures,"  and overwhelming question that immediately inundates this moral morphoscape that Mr. Harris proposes and ask whether the relativism proposed really offers any sort of solution at all to Mr. Harris's search for morals in science.  Many questions may admit of more or less equal answers all round.  So, the question of abortion--for example--whose consciousness are we to appease--that of the fully formed individual or that of the as yet incompletely formed?  How do we attach a scale to things like this that can be "scientifically measured." 

Indeed, the new atheism is nothing of the sort--it is merely theism transferred to the human intellect.  As is almost always the case, South Park has said all that need be said in the matter.

Comments

  1. Hi Steven, hope you’re doing well, and hope you don’t mind if I press you a bit.

    Do you agree that understanding the world is a good thing? That science can help us understand the world? That human beings are part of the world?

    If you answer yes to these questions, then you have something in common with Harris, who argues that science can help us better understand facts about our nature and the world of which we’re a part.

    For instance, science can help us better understand when brain development can support conscious mental states.

    Ends up that a 3-month old human embryo has the same degree of consciousness as a 3-month old elephant embryo, namely, none.

    At this early stage, the neuronal structures of the brain are way too primitive to support anything like mental mapping, intentional stances, attitudes, beliefs, and so on.

    Science can’t tell us what to value. But it can help us put our moral judgments on better footing.

    Take good care.

    Cheers,
    Kevin

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  2. Dear Kevin,

    I hold an advanced degree in the sciences (Paleontology) and bear no resemblance at all to Mr. Harris. I disagree with the contention that an empiricist base helps clarify much of anything about moral decisions. And in fact, even the facts are contested. You say a 3-month old embryo has no consciousness and yet there is documented movement away from pain stimulus--definitely a conscious act. Was that actually the cause?--a good and reasonable question--but the bald contention made is questionable.

    The world is a good thing--a religious contention--not a scientific one. One must start by asking how one quantifies and tests good. Are we taking the goodness of the world as axiomatic? Under what system of hypotheses and what system of verifiable axioms can we prove goodness? Of what does goodness consist? What is the eigenvalue of good in its multidimensional space and how do we plot the requisite components of good to measure overall goodness? If the world is essentially good--how do we explain the huge amount of suffering not merely among humans but in the natural world? Is that good? What does one mean when one asks whether the world is a good thing? How does science answer this question? Science can state the world is an object of study and that it can be understood. But it cannot even state or prove that it is worth studying, much less whether or not it is good.

    This is my problem with both Harris and the contention of those who would fashion science into the new religion. The first is essentially a religious or moral question and is either axiomatic or unanswerable with science alone. The other two are irrelevant with respect to morality. The world exists good, bad, or indifferent.
    (to be continued)


    shalom,

    Steven

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  3. Dear Kevin

    (continued from above--comments boxes can only take 4096 characters--is that a good and moral thing? Can science give us data to help us decide? :-D)

    I have worked long enough in science to know that when scientists help to mediate morality, we end up with more Spencers and Goebbels than we do Schweitzers. It is in the interest of science and of evolution and the betterment of all to make sure that no one who is inadequate in any way is allowed to reproduce. That is what evolution and science tell us. It is not inaccurate if the goal is alleviate future human suffering at the cost of present human suffering. So forced mass sterilizations are a verifiable good according to these lights.

    So--I would contend that science provides very, very little insight into morality. It provides raw data which moral people act upon to make decisions, (for example, the information you provided in your response) but it does not state one way or another whether the action taken constitutes a morality. Moreover, it does not tell us what other information to add into the equation in order to make a moral decision. If a 3 month old embryo is not conscious then is it always moral to exterminate it. Let's assume that the embryo is in good health and developing normally, but we find that it is a girl and we want a boy. My present happiness, the happiness of my family, and the happiness of my part of the world is increased by this decision--therefore the decision is moral and correct? How does science help me there?

    So my contention is that Science can present facts, but too often they are without context or deep meaning because they are isolated data--a 3 month old embryo lacks consciousness in any meaningful way (let's assume that as a fact). What does that fact permit? Does it permit any action at any time at all? Does it exclude any possible actions? What does science tell us about it?

    I have no problem with certain facts that science can help us understand and thus feed into a decision making process. But to state that science can define a morality is coming awfully close to reasoning used by too many to do things too hideous to contemplate to others--Tuskegee Airmen (although the facts there are contentious), Josef Mengele's undoubtedly useful discoveries about people in near-freezing conditions. etc.

    I would not run too swiftly to science as the arbiter of morality. We have too often seen its results. And they are no better than those that occur when religion gets out of hand.

    (I hope I haven't offended, because that is not my intention, but writing in a vacuum it is too easy for things to be misinterpreted, as I may well have done with your initial post. If so, I am sorry because I did not mean to distort your contention, merely to point out some of the many flaws I see with Science as the sole guide.)

    And I just worry over that last state--Science can't tell us what to value. But it can help us put our moral judgments on better footing. I just don't have evidence that the statement is true. I'd like to see a scientific test carried out that verifies the proposition.

    Or is it a Godel's Theorem problem?

    shalom,

    Steven

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  4. Dear Kevin,

    Oh, and one critical codicil to my lengthy reply above. I have not read Mr. Harris's book in which he has more space to spell out his argument--only the article length summary, with which I have, as you can see, some serious problems with the essential contentions.

    shalom,

    Steven

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  5. Hi Steven, I didn’t expect a lengthy reply!

    You write, “You say a 3-month old embryo has no consciousness and yet there is documented movement away from pain stimulus--definitely a conscious act.”

    Stimulus-response isn’t the same thing as consciousness, i.e., mental mapping, intentional stances, etc.

    A sun-flower tracks the sun (without a brain or consciousness) because of stimulus-response.

    You write, “The world is a good thing--a religious contention--not a scientific one.”

    I agree with your larger claim, but it’s not necessary for the main argument at hand, which requires the premise that knowledge of facts (or of how some systems work) is a good thing. Knowledge is good. It’s not an evil. I think that you and I (and Harris) agree on this point. If you think that knowledge is bad, please explain why.

    Again, “But it cannot even state or prove that it is worth studying, much less whether or not it is good.”

    Science doesn’t name an ontological domain. It’s a method, a process, for understanding how things work. That’s all. It doesn’t do everything.

    Again, “It is in the interest of science and of evolution and the betterment of all to make sure that no one who is inadequate in any way is allowed to reproduce. That is what evolution and science tell us.”

    It is? Among the so-called New Atheists (i.e., Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and perhaps Pinker), not one of them argues for the repellant view above. Not one.

    Again, “provides raw data which moral people act upon to make decisions…”

    Accurate data is good, right? Basing a decision on inaccurate data is bad, right? All things being equal, it’s better to make an informed decision. If you disagree, please explain why.

    Lastly, “But it can help us put our moral judgments on better footing. I just don't have evidence that the statement is true. I'd like to see a scientific test carried out that verifies the proposition.”

    Good, we agree on at least one point, that science (because it’s a method for understanding how some systems work, not all, but *some*) can help us put our moral judgments on better footing. As for a scientific test being carried out to prove it, don’t expect one soon. It can’t be done. Nor do we need one. We don’t need science to tell us that knowledge is good; we just need to not trip ourselves up with bad philosophy.

    Regards,
    Kevin

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. Dear Kevin,

    Your first response makes my point. Some people think that science ends in facts, but you simple ground the point in that it ends in interpretations in many cases. To compare an embryo and its reactions to a sunflower is certainly an interpretation--but truth is--you don't and can't know the state of consciousness of an embryo--the best you can manage is informed guesses. It is similar to Piaget's contention about a child's perception of time.

    The only point on which we agree is that science is a way of knowing. Mr. Harris would have us make it a way not just of knowing but of making all our decisions.

    On that basis this: "t is? Among the so-called New Atheists (i.e., Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and perhaps Pinker), not one of them argues for the repellant view above. Not one. "

    is simply illogical. It can be empirically shown that weeding out those that are not as strong, not as healthy, more inclined to disease, etc. is, in fact, a strong evolutionary tactic toward fitness and "the well-being of conscious entities." But we know, down to the core of our being that such a proposition is repellent. Ther is simply no question of it.

    Does that stem from science? If our decision is to be made simply on the basis of the science, then the moral imperative is the repellent one. Can I help it if the new atheists will not follow their god to his end?

    But science, as we both point out is a way of knowing. One, among many. And not a particularly good one for parsing good from evil. It is good that I kill many cows so that I may eat and stay alive. Or is it? Is it good for the cow? Is the cow one of the conscious beings I should be aware of and sympathetic to in my deliberations? If so, then am I entitled to kill it?

    What is the scientific definition of good in a moral sense? Is good that which leads to survival? Is good what contributes to well-being? What then is well-being? Scientific answers become ultimately reductionistic. Well-being is enhanced potential for survival. There can really be no other scientific answer, because what is a feeling of well-being except a chemical stimulus?

    No, my disagreement is not with using a tool (science) but with making the tool not just the assistant but the chief means by which decisions are made. Science as morality can only result in extremely bad morality or extremely bad science as we skew the definitions and meanings of one to meet the needs of the other.

    shalom,

    Steven

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  8. Kevin,

    I deleted my first answer to you because after I posted it I got an error message and figured it hadn't gone through, so I wrote another one. Nothing in it that I wouldn't have shared, but I fear I already try your patience.

    Steven

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  9. “Then they are not basing their decisions/morality on science. If they were doing so, this is the only possible conclusion.”

    No respectable thinker holds this view.

    “Accurate data is as good as its context.”

    True.

    “Basing a decision on inaccurate data may amount to an incorrect decision but is it immoral?“

    That depends, on the decision, the manner in which it was reached, its context, the consequences, the degree and scope of suffering, etc.

    “The statements that follow your original (ending with "better footing") state the ground of my disagreement. Show me how the statement made is verifiable scientifically.“

    Science cannot tell us what to value. I repeat, it cannot tell us what to value. Science can help us better understand certain systems. But that’s an immense service. By having a better understanding of how some of the world‘s systems work, we can make more informed moral judgments.

    “If my morality is to be BASED ON science, not merely informed by it--which seems to be Harris's contention…”

    It’s not Harris’ contention.

    “But Aquinas posits that knowledge is a good, I'm willing to go with tradition. But I still ask whether or not it is true. And if true, how is it demonstrated.”

    I love Aquinas but often disagree with him heartily, except when he posits that knowledge is a good. I agree with him there. It can’t be scientifically demonstrated, but it can be philosophically demonstrated, in the loose sense of coherently argued for…

    1. Freedom is good, i.e., it’s better to have more choices rather than few.
    2. Knowledge gives us access to more choices.
    3. Knowledge is good.

    Or:

    1. If knowledge is bad, then we must know why it’s bad, what reason makes it bad.
    2. But that’s incoherent, relying as it does on knowledge.
    3. Knowledge is good.

    I myself prefer the second argument because it shows very elegantly that knowledge is a default position even for those who argue that ignorance is bliss.

    Regards,
    Kevin

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  10. Dear Kevin,

    "It’s not Harris’ contention."

    This is a contention not verifiable from the evidence of the piece I have examined. He certainly goes a very long way down that trail in the course of his article.

    On Aquinas, I don't fully accept any of the axioms, so I can't fully accept the conclusions. It is entirely too black and white. Is freedom always good? Then why don't we live in total anarchy where everyone is free to make whatever choice they want whenever they want? But we'll leave that because it is my personal problem and once the axiom is accepted the conclusion follows.

    If Science cannot tell us what to value (a contention that I believe would be refuted by Mr. Harris) then how is it the BASIS for a morality. Not a support, but a foundation? If we cannot know from it what to value, how can it be the cornerstone of a morality--which is all about what to value and why?

    shalom,

    Steven

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  11. "If Science cannot tell us what to value (a contention that I believe would be refuted by Mr. Harris) then how is it the BASIS for a morality."

    Science can speak w/ some authority on instrumental values, like eating broccoli instead of sugar for optimal health.

    That is, IF you want to eat a healthy diet, eat broccoli, not a lot of sugar, etc.

    But science doesn't speak with authority on ultimate values, like eating an optimal diet.

    One can always decide to eat garbage, no matter what the nutrition science says.

    The same is true of other sciences in different domains.

    They are so many eyes that can inform our moral perspicuity.

    Cheers,
    K

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  12. Just found an interview snippet with Harris where he does suggest, per your criticism, that science can be a foundation for morality, but it's not clear whether he's referring to instrumental or ultimate values.

    If the former, I agree.

    If the latter, I stand corrected and disagree.

    I just don't see how science can tell us that life is worth living.

    These valuations are rooted in experience that have nothing to do with good science....

    Enough from me, I've blathered on way too long, thanks for your patience, good night.

    Cheers,
    K

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  13. Dear Kevin,

    Thank you for the conversation. And in your last, I might have some partial agreement, so long as we understand that science is not the only source even of instrumental values. When we begin to enlarge the claims of what Science can tell us, we make of it a religion of its own.

    shalom,

    Steven

    ReplyDelete

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