Sam Harris: Science CAN Answer Moral Questions

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Questions of good and evil, right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science. But Sam Harris argues that science can -- and should -- be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life.

Adored by secularists, feared by the pious, Sam Harris' best-selling books argue that religion is ruinous and, worse, stupid -- and that questioning religious faith might just save civilization.

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He still doesn't tell us how science can be or should be an authority on values when, by definition, it is in the business of laying forth facts.

He still doesn't tell us how science can be or should be an authority on values when, by definition, it is in the business of laying forth facts.

You're right that he doesn't spell it out---and he should---but I thought the gist was pretty clear.

1) There are common themes to morality, which transcend any particular moral system. Morality is a natural phenomenon, of a particular sort, and not other things. So, for example, sociopaths like Ted Bundy are defective units, biologically speaking---the morality thing doesn't work. (Whether that's due to an organic brain defect or cultural damage.)

2) At a fundamental level, morality is about cooperation.

3) Many differences between moral systems hinge on questions of fact. The only way to resolve those differences is to look at the actual facts.

4) If we recognize those things, and use science---and more broadly, rationality---as a guide, we can converge to moral agreement much more than we currently do, even if there are also differences that don't go away in light of facts.

5) A lot of differences of moral opinion are based in religion, and they mostly amount to be people being wrong about moral facts, and proceeding to make moral mistakes.

6) Religious differences of opinion confuse people about morality with red herring issues like the "sinfulness" of homosexuality or premarital sex, or the "virtuousness" of piety, reverence, and promoting one's religion.

For example, a lot of moral divergence stems from ideas like Divine Command theory---the idea that morality is dictated by God---and differing religious ideas about which god(s) or god-like supernatural entities (e.g., Karma) are real and what it is that the moral authority wants or enforces.

For example, many Christians think that their god is real, is a person who wants certain things and abhors others, and loves you but will torture you forever if you don't believe that sort of thing.

Many of those people think that moral wrongness is about sinning against their God, as opposed to beneficial treatment of other beings capable of happiness and suffering.

If they are wrong about God's existence, or their God's preferences, or the nature of morality, they are making factual mistakes that lead to moral mistakes.

For example, denying gays equal rights may seem moral to them, because God disapproves of homosexuality and wants it discouraged, but if they're wrong about God, sin, and homosexuality, they're probably wrong about that practical judgment as well, and doing something immoral.

Science can illuminate what it is to be moral, and what would and wouldn't count as being moral, even if it can't make you want to be moral, or resolve all differences of moral opinion.

In light of a scientific understanding of morality itself and relevant facts, people should agree more than they currently do on moral issues.

For example, there's good reason to think that there's no God of the sort that most Americans believe in, that morality is not about sinning against God, and that in fact homosexuality is not the sort of thing that could plausibly be considered sinful---it's not generally a choice, and to the extent that there's choice involved, it's not the kind of choice that is harmful to others, and nobody's going to burn in Hell for it.

Whether or not you agree with those things, it is clear that many moral issues hinge on truth claims---e.g., the existence or nature of God and/or Hell, the nature of morality, God's preferences, etc.

That's very different from a normal subjective preference, like a taste or distaste for cilantro or the color orange. If you say that cilantro tastes like soap and shit to you, I can't really disagree with that, even though cilantro tastes good to me. Maybe that's just the way you're wired.

But if you say that homosexuality is wrong and that gays should be prevented from acting on their sexual preferences, we're going to have an argument---and we should.
Unless you're willing to admit that your distaste for homosexuality is just about being personally squicked by it, you're responsible for making a moral argument and getting the relevant facts right.

Science/religion compatibilists and accommodationists like to make it sound like there are mostly "nonoverlapping magisteria" and that science and religion are about different things---e.g., science is about facts, and religion is about values. (And maybe unfalsifiable truth claims, and maybe "supernatural" stuff that's beyond the reach of science, somehow.)

Harris and the other New Atheists are right that this is just false. Science is about everything real, including morality and religion itself. (And any supernatural stuff, if it's real.)

Science has a whole lot to say about religion and morality, including showing that religion is typically wrong about morality, at least to the extent that it makes any distinctively religious claims, as opposed to the kind of humanistic moral argument anybody can make.

By Paul W., OM (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

He takes some philosophical foundations, doesn't accept them as being part of values/philosophy, and assuming them draws on truth claims that have an intuitive judgement under those foundations.

It's sleight-of-hand - one needs to step off of scientific foundations into the murkier realms of values and philosophy to have those foundations (concern over inner life, value of his notion of flourishing, etc).

Pat Gunn:

He takes some philosophical foundations, doesn't accept them as being part of values/philosophy, and assuming them draws on truth claims that have an intuitive judgement under those foundations.

I don't think that Harris is denying that there are some basic values involved. He is saying that those basic values are generally shared by "normal" people, meaning pretty much anybody who isn't a natural sociopath or raised to be one.

He's saying that certain shared values are basically not in dispute, maybe (though he doesn't make this clear) because they're grounded in what morality evolved to be.

He's also saying that the unshared values that people often fight over are largely bogus---they're based on factual errors about how the universe is. (E.g., whether there's a God who wants you to kill fags or non-virgin daughters.)

I don't think that Harris would deny that there are "unprovable" value statements at the root of any functioning moral systems---e.g., that wantonly inflicting suffering for no good reason is wrong.

I suspect he would say that science has something to say about what those core value statements are---why they're shared, and which statements really are core widely-shared values vs. derived ones that hinge on differences of factual opinion subject to scientific debunking.

He's not saying that we can scientifically prove that you shouldn't like it if other people suffer, and make you care about others. If you're a stone sociopath, there's nothing science can say to make you not one, and make you care about other people.

If you're rational, though, it can show you that you are not a properly functioning moral unit---your moral sense is broken in an objective sense---whether you care about it or not, and even if you like it that way. And in fact, intelligent sociopaths are often fairly clear on morality, able to make the same kinds of moral judgments as other people, but "from the outside," and simply don't mind being amoral/immoral. They "get" morality, in an intellectual way, even if they don't have morality themselves.

It's sleight-of-hand - one needs to step off of scientific foundations into the murkier realms of values and philosophy to have those foundations (concern over inner life, value of his notion of flourishing, etc).

I don't know what sleight of hand you're talking about. He acknowledges that people will disagree on what exactly counts as "flourishing," for example, though they'll also agree to a considerable extent on what can count---e.g. burning in Hell forever would be bad, if it actually could happen. More generally, being alive and happy is better than being dead or miserable, even if different flavors of happiness and misery may rank differently for different people.

His point is not that we'll all agree on everything if we just accept the science and figure it all out. He's saying that we'll disagree less, because most of us share some crucial moral intuitions, and many of our current disagreements hinge mostly on truth claims. (e.g., the existence of God, who is God's reliable prophet, what God wants us to do or not do with our genitalia, etc.)

He also acknowledges that some things are always going to be unknown---we may not know which social organization would in fact be best for the most people, for example, and therefore have different moral opinions of reinforcing vs. undermining the current social order, or militating for particular changes. He is saying that we should try to figure out such things rationally, rather than falling back on moral reasoning grounded in falsehoods, e.g., various religious BS.

By Paul W., OM (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

The question of shared values is an inherently philosophical one though, and philosophers in practice usually have to "clear the ground" from these kinds of intuitive/primitive philosophies (based in whatever culture they're writing for) in order to lay ground for their new content.

Having better facts is great, and science is quite good at that. Going beyond that is what he's talking about and where he falls on his face - "I want to make everyone flourish" is certainly something one *might* use as foundational for a life-philosophy, but simply assuming it is dishonest, and saying that it's sociopathic not to accept that foundation is both a bad argumentative move and philosophically broken. The very business of life-philosophy (whether embedded in a religion or not) is to examine/deconstruct/construct these foundations that he simply assumes-without-admitting-it.

There is no real way to "figure these things out rationally" when we really understand the nature of value systems - we can reach a position, and the tools of philosophy are wonderful in helping us understand how our values relate to our conclusions (and making arguments that are ultimately aesthetic about them), but philosophers will never have the "hardness" of science - it's a naturally much more divergent field (even without religion, your objectivist, orthodox marxist, and secular humanist will have irreducible foundational differences in a way that scientists won't, and you're not going to have any way to resolve those systems of thought beyond "replace your foundations with my intuitive and underexamined philosophy and everything will become clear").

Even if we move beyond religion, we'll have multiple philosophies contending for that space. That's probably never going to change.

I think Pat is right here. Here's an example: there is no scientific justification for ending slavery. And there was a time when most people on earth would have seen no problem with it, morally.

Why not? Because slavery is a perfectly rational solution to a whole set of labor problems. When I say that slavery -- owning another human -- is wrong, there isn't any kind of irreducible, non-subjective reason it should be so. It isn't like physics that way, where we can all agree on the charge of the electron.

If I have to supply labor, it makes perfect sense to force other people to do it. That's why people did it in the first place. It works. The U.S. is so rich in part because we were to cotton what Saudi Arabia is to oil in the 1850s.

And slavery evolved along with other moral systems. In fact, one could argue that it is the default for human civilization, since it seems to have evolved independently in so many social systems and for the majority of the time we have had settled societies it existed. But I don't think Harris really examines that aspect closely.

In fact, I can think of a quite a few "scientific" justifications to own slaves. If we replaced a lot of the machine labor we do now with humans, for instance, we could reduce our carbon footprint drastically, especially if we didn't care what happened to people. But no sane person would use that justification, I would hope.

If you take the position that it didn't work for the slaves, and is wrong now, that's fine. But there isn't any particularly good scientific, duplicable experiment you can do to demonstrate why that is the right position to take. It's an a priori position that slavery is "wrong." You're starting from the assumption that human beings not like you should be treated with dignity and respect. But that's all that is -- an assumption. Humans have survived quite well without that assumption in place for most of our history. It's very new, and I would say rather difficult for our primate-brains to get around as we evolved a morality, insofar as we did, to deal with much smaller groups of people. Much of what he talks about as moral evolution seems to me to be co-opting those primate functions. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, not so much.

None of this is to say you can't come up with a scientific hypothesis as to why morality exists, or even that you can't use science to inform it. But the fact that we can imagine -- and in fact function pretty well -- with societies whose basic moral assumptions are so far apart seems to me to make Harris' contentions shaky at best.

While I can only agree "that religion is ruinous and, worse, stupid -- and that questioning religious faith might just save civilization", science has no more of a valid basis for moral authority then religion. While equally capable of rationalizing it's own moral conception as religion has done, but equally limited in moral potential by that evolutionary ball and chain that is human nature itself.

And while questioning religion could very well save civilization, it won't be by any atheist ravings, but by a conception of truth and reality that applies to all things seen and unseen. And it's already on the web:

"For the first time in history, however unexpected, the world must now measure for itself, the reality of a new claim to revealed truth, a moral tenet not of human intellectual origin, offering access by faith, to absolute proof, an objective basis for moral principle and a fully rational and justifiable belief!"

Not reformation but revolution! and it's already started. "For those individuals who can imagine outside the cultural box of history, to stand against the stream of fashionable thought and spin, who have the moral courage to learn something new and will TEST this revelation for themselves, an intellectual and moral revolution is already under way, where hope meets reality and the 'impossible' becomes inevitable, with the most potent Non Violent Direct Action any human being can take to advance peace, justice, change and progress."

Check it out at http//

Is this not the very same naturalistic fallacy espoused by Ayn Rand's Objectivist movement? Shermer, correctly in my estimation, thought this pegged them as a cult. And I somehow doubt Harris would find many points of agreement between himself and their "objectively derived" morality...

By Miracle Mart (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

Call me ignorant, but I had been under the assumption that science attempting to insert itself into religious and philosophical thought (such as this man is trying to do) has negative connotations, equivalent to religion attempting to insert itself into science. As far as I have noticed, how "dangerous" or "backward" religious thinking can be all depends upon the person, not the institution; there are just as many militant nutters in every cause, not just your religion of choice.
I respect this man's views, and I will keep them in mind, but to not only calling a simple belief in a higher entity "stupid", but "dangerous" for society, is the kind of thing I would expect an individual like PZ Meyers to say (no offense meant, I assure you.)

By Practically Un… (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

People such as Sam Harris are what they preach about all things in nature and that is selfish and opportunistic. While scientists can judge moral values, they are unlikely to be able to express moral values to the same extent as those who have faith in a God with moral values.

For example, their judgmental and analytical perspective prevents them from being able to give without expecting some kind of acknowledgment or positive feedback in return. They don't pray for the wellbeing of others because they can't see the point.

His belief in a clockwork universe is reflected in his belief in a clockwork brain. Yes he can judge others and others can judge him, but at the end of the day what does it matter when, in a clockwork universe, everything is predetermined? Maybe he (and others like him) takes comfort from a belief that his clockwork brain is better than everybody else's - and that he is somehow responsible.

He should be reminded that religion is not the cause of war, it is an excuse for war. Religion is an avenue to God, just as science is an avenue to nature. Both are valid.

D J Wray
Packaged Evolution: The Intelligent Universe
"The human brain is a symbiotic gateway between two universes"

@DJ_Wray: The "scientist hat" is just one of the hats a person might wear - Discussion of morals/ethics/values is in the purview of philosophy.

Nonreligious people certainly can give without acknowledgement/feedback in return - if they value the common welfare of humanity, if they value other people, if they believe in the public good and are willing to support it, then yes, they can act unselfishly. This is in fact a better altruism than those hoping for a nice afterlife or approval of some deity - the first is a payoff, the second is submission to a being (that I contend to be imaginary, but that's not the point). Being a good person is at heart being willing to sacrifice one's self-oriented values for societally-oriented values.

Praying is indeed a waste of time - an empty plea to an imaginary being - if you pray to a rock, a tree, a cloud, to angels or gods, you're simply wasting your time. If you want to be good, spend your time, attention, and resources to better the world. Philosophy can help people be more specific about what that means (as well as expose some differences between schools of thought on the matter).

Religion is not "valid" - it's a bundle of different things, but at its core are false truth claims and philosophy with a bad core. Many great minds have done interesting work with that bad core - the reasoning in responsa, the intricate schools of literary analysis and legal reasoning in the juristic schools of Islam, Maimonides, Aquinas, many of the Sutras of Buddhism. Better philosophy can pull interesting ideas and arguments from these frameworks and use them for making something more philosophically consistent, and we shouldn't simply toss them in the bin. Still, they don't merit the term valid.

Science is a way to try to understand the nature of things. Philosophy is the parent discipline of science, with a much broader intent to understand and decide everything. We don't need Religion, either as a separate discipline or as a distorted form of life/value philosophy.