Correct, Crank, or Crazy?

So the other day Sam Harris was asked to speak to the TED conference, and he presented what he believes to be a basis for scientifically validating morals and values. This is interesting, as most people who’ve studied the issue have concluded, for pretty compelling reasons, that this is not the sort of thing that’s really possible.

Now, I haven’t seen Harris’s talk, as I don’t care for watching YouTube and it’s not a form well-suited for evaluating what would be, if true, a fairly radical discovery. The thing is, skepticism gives you a toolkit for addressing such circumstances. When someone makes an extraordinary claim, one that runs counter to the last few centuries of human knowledge, you expect them to be able to take on all comers. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, so one shouldn’t make such claims without expecting intense scrutiny. People who make extraordinary claims are either correct (rare, but wonderful), crazy (out of touch with all of reality, including the subsection touching on the specific topic at hand; fairly rare), or cranks (generally sane but out of touch with reality on some specific issue; common).

Below the fold, I explain why I don’t think Harris belongs in the first two categories, but first I’ll just offer my Shorter Sam Harris:

Harris: Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates Hume, Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit?
Man in Black: Yes.
Harris: Morons.

It didn’t work for Vizzini, and I don’t think it goes to Harris’s credit either.


Sean Carroll kicked the discussion of Harris’s ideas off by pointing out that Harris’s talk mistakes is for ought, a useful distinction drawn by Hume and a range of other philosophers over the years. If Harris really did make that mistake, it’s a biggy. Sean makes various other points along the way, but as we say on Passover, dayenu (it would have been enough). When you screw up is/ought, things generally go pretty far astray, whether it’s just because you commit the naturalistic fallacy, or because you start thinking it’s OK to discriminate based on race because of pre-existing correlations between race and socioeconomic status.

The problems seem to have been so obvious that even creationists got in on the game with a shockingly coherent essay at Bill Dembski’s blog (and another of less grace at the same venue).

This is the first big test of our trilemma, to see whether Harris would take these criticisms in hand and present a well-thought-through reply, or reply like a crazy person or a crank. Things went downhill, with Harris first twatting “Please know that I will be responding to this stupidity,” and linking back to Sean’s blog. This, let me say, doesn’t speak well of Harris’s own values, as one generally shouldn’t respond to thoughtful criticism by calling a fairly obvious, thoughtful, and polite criticism of your earth-shattering idea “stupidity.” That’s what cranks do, but not what serious people do. At least, those are the values of the society I grew up in. I also grew up in a society where we don’t go around threatening to nuke other people because of their religion, so Harris’s and my values are, shall we say, different.

In any event, Harris followed his offensive tweet with a longer blog post that does nothing to disburse the air of crankery. He begins by treating YouTube commenters as his serious opponents. To borrow a phrase: “Youtube comments. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

The he responds to Sean by

  1. continuing to call Sean stupid
  2. suggesting that he (Sam Harris) is a superior philosopher to David Hume
  3. claiming that the is/ought distinction is trivially wrong
  4. insisting without argument that his ideas are superior to all prior attempts at moral philosophy

Now, all of these could well be true, but it’s unlikely. And by putting himself into an analogy where Harris is to Hume as Carroll is to Robert Oppenheimer … well, that’s not what serious people do. It’s what cranks do. Sean is a recognized expert on the fairly fundamental question of Why Time Exists, while Harris is a bit of a dilettante with a flair for self-promotion and a habit of tweaking his enemies noses. Good skills in many situations, but not an instant justification of the claim to have outstripped all prior moral philosophers (and don’t get me started on the immoral philosophers).

Harris also maunders over the meaning of consensus, and how we compare scientific consensus to moral consensus. It’s hardly a new line of reasoning, and Harris’s proposal neither sufficiently novel nor so brilliantly argued as to merit his confidence in his own excellence.

Part of the problem is that moral consensus is rarely more than skin deep. It’s true that pretty much every religion and every moral philosophy seems to have some version of reciprocal altruism. But it turns out that “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” can mean many different things even if everyone agrees that it’s right. In our general conversation, most people don’t think that ants count as “others” for those purposes, but that their children do. Some people hold that all sentient animals deserve standing in such a moral calculus, while others do not. For no small stretch of time, this country’s moral consensus was that descendants of Africans did not deserve equal standing with other Americans. There’s no clear moral consensus in today’s society that gay people – let alone the transgendered, intersexed, and otherwise queer – deserve equal standing with those of more conventional sexual orientation.

I like to think, like Martin Luther King, Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” that is towards a broadening of the community of equals. Unlike me, King thought that this arc was the result of “a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows,” i.e. God. I don’t. Thus, even in agreement we lack consensus.

Even were we to find consensus, it isn’t obvious that it would tell us that there is some universal morality, let alone tell us what that morality would be. Indeed, Harris’s own analogy shows us why. Scientific consensus is not what tells us that truth exists in the world. A nonscientist – like other nonspecialists in a given field – must rely on the consensus of expert opinion, but that consensus arises from empirically testable reality. We know that gravity (or something very much like it) must be correct not because physicists have reached a consensus that this is so, but because relevant experts have conducted research that all points the same direction. The experts are weathervanes for the truth, but the consensus of their opinion is not itself that truth. The consensus is helpful to the rest of us, because we aren’t all expert physicists, and we have to place a certain trust in the people who are. Consensus subject to objective testing is worth a great deal, but consensus on matters not subject to empirical testing is not necessarily meaningful.

And that’s where the analogy to morality falls apart. In no small part, it fails on the naturalistic fallacy. But let us grant Harris’s claims about “Hume’s lazy analysis of facts and values,” and move on. Even suspending the naturalistic fallacy, moral consensus would only mean something if non-experts were to use it as a basis for deferring to experts who, in turn, developed that consensus from first principles. But On what basis do we declare some people to be moral experts and others not to be. Harris does suggest that we create such a classification, but not how. The Catholic Church believes it already has such a system, as do most other religions. These systems are generally contradictory and incompatible, and the people set up as moral experts often turn out to be deeply morally flawed. And turning to fMRI of average citizens as a basis for experts (Harris seems to think that the moral experts will be neuroscientists who measure some sort of brain state to evaluate which values people hold, or something) creates a circularity in which the experts to whom nonexperts are to turn must rely on the minds of nonexperts to achieve their expertise.

Here’s how Harris lays out his basic thesis:

When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal wellbeing that we can, in principle, know—simply because wellbeing (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.

What he’s saying is that, in principle, an fMRI or some similar test might let us measure a person’s “wellbeing” and thereby determine what their values are, thus guiding us toward societal consensus about right and wrong, and onward to “right and wrong answers to questions of morality.”

But the first step here requires that “wellbeing” be a measure of values. And he may address this in his YouTube, but it strikes me as an unjustified leap. His essay just handwaves at the matter, asserting that those who disagree are “not really thinking about these issues seriously,” and that his point “seems rather obvious.” And of course it seems so to him, but the views of cranks often seem rather obvious to their authors. They too dismiss their critics as stupid, and past notables in the field as lazy, deluded, and deluding. This doesn’t make Harris a crank, but neither does it distinguish him from one.

The test of Harris’s claim is not whether it is obvious to him, but whether he can present a coherent and convincing body of evidence to support it. If it is science, it will generate testable predictions, and research will bear out those predictions. No doubt we can measure “wellbeing,” though it’s currently got no operational meaning that relevant experts agree upon. We may be able to show that some people’s wellbeing increases when certain values are fulfilled. But in what sense does this test that such values are reflections of morals, let alone that the morals are “right” or “wrong”?

Jonathan Haidt and others are already testing people’s moral intuitions, and finding remarkable consistencies. But they also find remarkable inconsistencies, or at least irrationalities. And even if we systematize such moral intuitions, how can we say that such intuitions are right or wrong? Harris seems to posit that maximizing “wellbeing” is the measure of right or wrong.

But this raises real problems. Wellbeing is not a notion without problems in philosophy, and which form of wellbeing a person values is itself a matter of personal and cultural values. For some, the maximization of personal happiness is the measure of wellbeing. For others, the maximization of overall happiness (weighted in various ways) is better. Some find self-sacrifice to be the highest form of wellbeing. Choosing one or the other is a value judgment, and it can hardly be conceived how one might test the claimed superiority of one over the other. If the test itself relies on value judgments, we can hardly use it as a basis for the claim that the merits of values can be scientifically tested. Harris is aware of these problems, but his attempts to argue them away simply lack substance.

Set that aside, though, and consider the question of whether, if we had an agreed-upon definition of wellbeing, such wellbeing would actually tell us right from wrong in any scientifically testable way. In particular, note that we lack any clear way to know what it would mean to empirically test whether a moral value is right. The claim that wellbeing is linked to moral merit is also a value claim, and lacks any obvious testable basis. Harris surely believes it true, but does the claim make any testable prediction? I can conceive of none, and thus conclude that several steps in Harris’s logic are dependent on untestable value judgments. He’s built a grand theory, but it seems to amount to turtles-all-the-way-down logic. In short, Harris’s logical positivist effort (for that’s what it is) is running into the problem that logical positivism always hits.

This is why moral consensus, whether it exists or not, does not tell us the truth. Scientific consensus is a weathervane pointing to an invisible but measurable wind. But the question of whether there is any such measurable phenomena underlying morals and values is not something subject to objective testing. As Harris notes:

Everyone has an intuitive “physics,” but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter), and only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. Everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much intuitive morality is wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective wellbeing) and only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal wellbeing.

But who counts as a “genuine moral expert”? In physics, we judge genuine expertise based on training and command of testable knowledge, and ideally the ability to formulate novel, testable, and correct predictions about as-yet unseen circumstances. What is the testable knowledge on which we judge the expertise of a purported moral expert? Each person possesses comparable experience exercising moral judgment, and while society may freely hold certain of those people to have made poor choices – even to be sociopaths with diminished or absent moral capacity – there’s no obvious scientific basis for that judgment.

Harris replies to this objection in turn. He cites Sean Carroll’s query “Who decides what is a successful life?” and replies:

Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.” And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.

This is the sort of logic that Alan Sokal so brutally skewered in his 1996 hoax paper for Social Text. The issue is that, while certain aspects of science are indeed socially constructed, the enterprise itself is structured in a way that depends on a correspondence between claims and empirical reality. It is not that “we do” decide that memories are trustworthy (indeed, much research shows that memory is profoundly unreliable), nor can it be said that “we do” declare by fiat what counts as evidence. Science today is not what it was in Newton’s time in part because it was found that certain sorts of evidence and certain sorts of arguments work better at formulating claims which correspond with reality.

Harris claims that rejecting the above-quoted passage means I’ve “wiped out all science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.” I propose that his understanding of science is badly flawed, flawed as that of any crank with a new unified theory. To preserve his theory, he’d do what creationists and other denialists always try with their forms of crankery always do, redefine science to fit their preferences, turn science into a popularity contest rather than a system for testing claims against empirical reality, and take shelter in solipsism if anyone tries to challenge his views.

I don’t think Harris is crazy. I also don’t think he’s correct. The ultimate measure of a crank, though, is not that he be sane and incorrect, but that he be sane, incorrect, and unwilling to change his views in light of reasoned discourse. Harris’s consistent and unargued dismissals of all prior moral philosophers bodes poorly for his willingness to accept that he may have bitten off too much in one fell swoop, but if he’s a good scientist he’ll take the criticism in stride, break the problem down into smaller pieces, and work each up in turn. Sean seems not to think Harris is a crank, as he is still soldiering on. And maybe that dialog will turn something up of value.

I’ll offer a different angle for Harris to pursue, in the spirit of friendly discourse. Rather than relying on mental state as a measure of rightness or wrongness of values, look to evolutionary game theory.

The only seemingly universal moral value I can think of – and the only one Harris cites – is reciprocal altruism: the Golden Rule. We can find it in most religions and most moral philosophies. We can also derive it as an evolutionarily stable solution in evolutionary game theory when models are parameterized even vaguely like human societies. I don’t think that’s an accident.

Living in large groups consisting of multiple family groups requires cooperation on some level, and kin selection alone can’t get you the sort of altruism you need. It works fine for explaining why grandparents or siblings might provide childcare, but not why unrelated individuals should work together for the good of society as a whole, and if you can’t explain that, you can’t explain human society. My theory is that human moral systems exist to propagate rules which maintain stability and altruism within genetically heterogeneous populations.

Harris suggests that there may be “many peaks on the moral landscape,” but doesn’t really motivate that on any theoretical grounds. But it’s totally reasonable to invoke evolutionary psychology here to argue that the human brain and human social conventions evolved in a way that promotes societal stability, and that the moral landscape is shaped by the evolutionary pressures on societal stability.

Having that in hand, and work like Haidt’s and other social psychologists’, it’s possible to come up with a set of dimensions for the multidimensional moral landscape and a few of the major peaks and valleys in it. It should be possible to develop game theoretic models of how those values might interact, and whether the empirical landscape matches our model of societal stability, and to begin trying to account for variances between model and reality.

This would be an interesting exercise, and could even be informed by fMRI studies of one form or another. What it cannot do is tell us that desiring a stable society is right or wrong. As Douglas Adams observes in The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, modern society has not instilled immense confidence in the merits of society as constituted: “Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.” Whether we should have come out of the trees or not, whether we ought to live in society or not, whether society ought to be organized as it is: these are interesting questions, but they are not scientific questions. They generate no objectively falsifiable predictions. And trying to subsume them into science is just wrongheaded.

Comments

  1. #1 John S. Wilkins
    April 1, 2010

    Never go in against a faux-philosopher, when normativity is on the line. Ahahahahaha! Ahah…

  2. #2 M
    April 2, 2010

    “Now, I haven’t seen Harris’s talk, as I don’t care for watching YouTube and it’s not a form well-suited for evaluating what would be, if true, a fairly radical discovery.”

    This is something I still can’t understand about you. Right at the beginning you admit you don’t know the details, and yet you proceed to spill over 3,000 words anyway. This is the equivalent of “tl;dr” and you’re saying it with pride because of your feelings about YouTube? Just go to the TED homepage and watch it on their own player. If you can tell a DI fellow that ignorance is no excuse, then I can rightfully point out that it holds true for you as well.

    I am amazed how some of your posts can be so good and others so fundamentally flawed without any realization on your part — and often more than a bit of defensiveness. In the past I haven’t seen you take criticism well when it comes from someone who is pro-science, even though you can be quite good at dishing it out to those who are anti-science.

    I watched the Harris clip a few days ago. I recognize that it wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good unless you have an ideological reason for rejecting its notion. One point about it is that he is creating a framework for coherently rejecting the theistic belief in atheism leading to nihilism. If nothing else, that should resonate with a good chunk of people. The rest is mostly an attack on the idea of science being separate from morality (or worse, being morally relativistic) which meets with limited success, but should still be thought provoking.

  3. #3 abb3w
    April 2, 2010

    Josh Rosenau: Even were we to find consensus, it isn’t obvious that it would tell us that there is some universal morality, let alone tell us what that morality would be.

    More simply: consensus would merely identify a common property for how humans make “ought” evaluations; this does not, however, prove that we OUGHT to use that property as a bridge across the is-ought divide.

    Additionally, he’s also not shown that is necessarily the ultimate foundation. The common property might not be an exact expression, but merely a close approximation; and this property may only be a particular case of a more general attribute.

  4. #4 abb3w
    April 2, 2010

    Oh, and in Harris’s further response, he makes an additional category error:

    In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What’s the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.” Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here’s the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other).

    This disregards the case where the consciousness-value domain is a subcase of some larger domain, that includes the consciousness domain as a subset.

    Thus, while consciousness may be an intelligible domain, it does not show uniqueness.

  5. #5 Ray Ingles
    April 2, 2010

    Actually, I do think the “is/ought problem” is a fallacy – as typically presented, at least.

    Consider chess. There are certain fundamental ‘rules of the game’ that define it. An 8×8 board, 8 pawns per side that move in certain ways, two rooks per side that move in other ways, castling, the initial configuration of the pieces, etc. Now, there is no rule that you can’t sacrifice your queen in the first few moves of the game. It’s illegal to move your king to a threatened square, but it’s perfectly acceptable by the rules to stick your queen in front of a pawn at the start of the game.

    However, if you want to win the game, you shouldn’t do that. There are almost no situations (at least, assuming evenly-matched opponents) where giving up your queen at the start will lead to your victory. Similarly, it’s rarely a good idea to move your king out to the center of the board. It’s usually a bad move.

    Note words like “shouldn’t” and “bad”. They are value judgements. They prescribe ‘oughts’. They are not part of the ‘rules’ of chess. From where do they come? From the combinations of two things – first, the rules and structure of chess, and second, from the player’s desire to win the game. They are strategic rules.

    You can’t get an “ought” from an “is”, but you can get an “ought” from an “is” and a desire, a goal.

    We have physical laws, and we have human desires. It seems to me that “oughts” – strategic rules – morals – arise from those two things, via the game theory you mention.

    What it cannot do is tell us that desiring a stable society is right or wrong.

    Of course, I’d note that for practically anything a human being might want to do, a stable society is a good thing…

  6. #6 Josh Rosenau
    April 2, 2010

    M: I haven’t watched the video because I don’t think video is the best way to convey a revolutionary scientific idea. It’s not YouTube vs. TED’s embedded video, it’s a critique of presenting a radical idea as a video per se. He has a book in the works which may or may not put meat on the bones, and I’ve read his essay responding to critics. My substantive remarks about his ideas addressed his written works, which seem to be fairly self-sufficient as defenses of his ideas.

    If someone writes to me and says “I have a DVD that will blow away the scientific establishment,” I my first inclination is to call the writer a crank and ignore the video (cf. “What the Bleep Do We Know?”).

    As for the matter of “creating a framework for coherently rejecting the theistic belief in atheism leading to nihilism,” one needn’t subsume morality into science to do that. I laid out my basic reply to that point in the last couple paragraphs here, and it requires no scientific basis for saying that certain moral values are abstractly right or wrong. And I’ll note that saying “he’s trying to do something worthwhile” is not the same as saying “he’s right.”

  7. #7 Colin
    April 2, 2010

    I have to say that I am amazed that you can’t be bothered to even listen to the position you’re arguing against.

  8. #8 Josh Rosenau
    April 2, 2010

    Colin: I read Harris’s own description of his views, and other people’s summaries of his talk. Unless I’m mischaracterizing his views, what does it matter if I watched the video? The ideas are what matter, not how I learned about his ideas.

  9. #9 Colin
    April 2, 2010

    Josh: It looks like your post @6 came out as I was commenting @7. I would agree that if what you’ve read presents the same argument as was in the presentation, then it does not matter.

    Cheers,
    Colin

  10. #10 Colugo
    April 2, 2010

    This may be Harris’ shark jump moment.

    In the process of arguing that we can arrive at scientifically validated values (wrong) he reduces math and science to consensus social constructs (wrong). Quite an accomplishment; a two-fer of stupidity.

    Harris, if we recall, is also unique among atheists and rationalists for suggesting that traditional Buddhist beliefs may be correct about the mind being independent of the brain and even about rebirth. I wouldn’t take anything he says about science or rationalism seriously.

    The hubristic quest for ‘scientifically’ proven values is littered with folly: Objectivism, Leninism, Monism… But these things are never scientific, just ideologues and false gurus trying to invoke science the way the run-of-the-mill ranter invokes scripture.

  11. #11 Jesse
    April 4, 2010

    I did see Harris’ talk. And there’s a really simple rejoinder: come up with a scientifically testable reason that we should give up having slaves.

    Slavery is rational; it’s a perfectly logical solution to labor supply. That’s why so many societies did it for thousands of years.

    Science can demonstrate that humans are all enough alike that you can’t differentiate by race or ethnicity; well enough. But science itself does NOT demonstrate that using slaves in spite of hat is an irrational thing to do, or even a wrong thing. And the consensus for a long time was that it was ok.

    Another issue is when he says religions make a truth claim on which to base morality. The situation is a mite more complicated than that. He also completely ignores the fact that in different religions and cultures the nature of that truth claim differs radically. Even Christianity and Judaism differ as to what will happen to you if you sin; Jews tend to focus on ritual uncleanliness and social consequences, whereas Christians are much more interested in the afterlife. (Read Deuteronomy and Leviticus and compare it to the Gospels and Epistles).

    Do religions make silly claims as to physical reality? Yes. But that actually hasn’t got much bearing on anything related to morality. Harris is spouting undergrad-level philosophy, based on pretty basic misinformation.

  12. #12 C.S.Strowbridge
    April 5, 2010

    “Unless I’m mischaracterizing his views…”

    How would you know? You can’t claim you are or are not mischaracterizing his views, because you don’t know what his views are.

    If you can’t see how this could be an issue, you are a crank.

    At best, at best this is one crank attacking another crank.

  13. #13 C.S.Strowbridge
    April 5, 2010

    “I did see Harris’ talk. And there’s a really simple rejoinder: come up with a scientifically testable reason that we should give up having slaves.”

    Slavery hurts the slave. We can measure this. Ta da!

    I too have seen this clip. He talks about wellbeing of an individual being or a society is a measurable fact. Since we can measure a person’s wellbeing, we should be able to use the scientific method to determine if an action was moral or not based on its outcome. I.E. Did it cause harm?

    That’s the point he’s trying to make. We can judge to morality of an action based on its outcome.

    This is the essence of the scientific principle.

    “And the consensus for a long time was that it [slavery] was ok.”

    And this consensus wasn’t based on science, but religion.

  14. #14 C.S.Strowbridge
    April 5, 2010

    One final point about great philosophers of the past. There’s a problem with quoting them as experts today… they were born in the past.

    David Hume died in 1776. The neuron wasn’t discovered until 1836. So David Hume lived in a world where the concept of being able to measure the mental state of a human being in a scientific way would be alien. He might have been a genius, but he was working with very incomplete information.

    That’s not to say everything David Hume said can be thrown out. But even a person of average intelligence living today might have a better understanding of the way the world works than a genius living more than 200 years ago.

  15. #15 J. J. Ramsey
    April 5, 2010

    C.S.Strowbridge: “David Hume died in 1776. The neuron wasn’t discovered until 1836.”

    Which has no bearing on the is-ought problem whatsoever. One can certainly use knowledge of neurons to give a better picture of what is, that alone can’t tell us our “oughts.”

    C.S.Strowbridge: “Since we can measure a person’s wellbeing, we should be able to use the scientific method to determine if an action was moral or not based on its outcome increases or decreases one’s wellbeing.”

    Fixed it for you. The problem is that to determine whether doing something to increase or decrease one’s wellbeing is a moral action, one has to value others’ wellbeing. Science can’t tell us whether to adopt that value or not. This is the very problem that Harris is eliding over in order to give his morality the cachet of science.

    Heck, even wellbeing has problems. Does locking a criminal up increase his or her wellbeing? Possibly not. Does killing terrorists increase their wellbeing? Heck, no. Yet we generally don’t consider such actions immoral. Of course, one can argue that we are concerned more about the average wellbeing of a population rather than individuals, but then that opens up the can of worms regarding slavery. If a reduction in wellbeing of certain members of society enhances the wellbeing of others by, for example, providing cheap labor so that people can spend less on necessary goods and have more money for luxuries, then what? You can’t answer that question merely by showing what the practice of slavery does to slaves. You have to appeal to values.

  16. #16 Josh Rosenau
    April 5, 2010

    C. S. Strowbridge: “How would you know [if you're mischaracterizing his views]?” See my posts @6 and @8. I read what Harris wrote, which one hopes is representative of his views.

  17. #17 Mike from Ottawa
    April 5, 2010

    “… it’s perfectly acceptable by the rules to stick your queen in front of a pawn at the start of the game. … However, if you want to win the game, you shouldn’t do that. … “Note words like “shouldn’t” and “bad”. They are value judgements.”

    Only if ‘You shouldn’t take a gulp of coffee until you know how hot it is.’ constitutes a value judgment. A value judgment is a choice as to what to value. Whether or not you want to get burned is the value judgment. In chess, you don’t make such judgments because you’re told what to value: threatening to take your opponent’s king with your next move with your opponent unable to fend off that fate for even a single move.

    In chess, you can make judgments about what will best achieve that goal and and you deploy reason and evidence to make your choices and to derive general guidance as to what is likely to lead to victory. What you can’t do is derive what constitutes victory from the mechanical rules of the game.

    Given the mechanical rules (i.e. other than definition of victory), there are all sorts of different ways victory in chess could be defined: most material after X turns, largest amount of space controlled after X turns, first to capture the other player’s queen, first to move a piece through his opponent’s original king’s square, threatening the instant capture of the enemy’s king with no way for him to stave it off for even one move or capturing a particular one of the opponent’s knights (capped knight odds, anyone?).

    There’s no way to use only the mechanical rules of chess, reason and one’s experience of play with them to determine which of those goals you should seek.

  18. #18 Mark K
    April 7, 2010

    Wow… what a long and boring text totally preoccupied with attacking the person Sam Harris and unquestioningly worshiping established philosophers and scientists. Cut the bullshit and focus on the ideas.

  19. #19 thp
    April 7, 2010

    What morality is, what it’s function is, can be discovered by science, simply by inquiring real living breathing people who came up with the term to begin with.
    Next stop is finding a pattern and posing a theory. Spell out this theory and have people try to falsify it (the moral landscape).
    If attempts at falsification are unsuccesfull, science and the public cannot help but accept/see it as an ought.
    One would say that science’s discovery of ‘the ought from an is’ would be objected against, but that would again mean it’s falsification and only another step in perfecting the science. In the mean time, the theory would give us the best possible guide to a moral life we ought to live.

    Naturally, this science is science idealized, science utopia, but it does tell us that answers are out there and waiting to be discovered.

  20. #20 John
    April 7, 2010

    “Now, I haven’t seen Harris’s talk, as I don’t care for watching YouTube and it’s not a form well-suited for evaluating what would be, if true, a fairly radical discovery.”

    Ah here’s an impressive bit of logic. Nothing of value could possibly be transmitted via youtube. Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with what Harris argues, as opposed to what it suits you to imagine him to say. Then you could review some books you haven’t read, and comment on some music you’ve never heard. Keep up the brilliance!

  21. #21 Joey Frantz
    April 7, 2010

    I agree that there’s no problem with the author judging Harris’ views without having seen his talk, though I wonder why he doesn’t just take the time (it’s not that long). I’ve read many descriptions and accounts of the talk, and they are all rather accurate. Harris’ own writings on the issue are themselves a lot more interesting than the statements he makes in the talk. The talk was mostly inane repetition of the same basic ideas, with irrelevant examples thrown in (“should we put cholera in the water?” – pointless blabber).

    So, no, there’s no real reason why Rosenau has to have actually seen the talk, sorry.

  22. #22 Ray Ingles
    April 8, 2010

    Only if ‘You shouldn’t take a gulp of coffee until you know how hot it is.’ constitutes a value judgment. A value judgment is a choice as to what to value. Whether or not you want to get burned is the value judgment.

    And the light of fundamental values casts ‘shadows’ of other values. If you don’t want to get burned, then gulping random cups of coffee without checking temperature is a bad thing. Which is what I said.

    Given the mechanical rules (i.e. other than definition of victory)

    But that’s kind of the whole point of the chess analogy: that there is a defined victory condition – the opponents’ king in check. Even if you ignore that, once you pick a ‘victory condition’, then that starts implying oughts.

    Now, it’s only an analogy, and real life is not a zero-sum game. Further, as you note, multiple goals are possible (indeed, inevitable). But game theory can apply to such situations, too. And I do think there is such a thing as human nature (i.e. it means something to say that someone is ‘human’ as opposed to something else), and there are some goals that are effectively universal among humans. Food, shelter, security, companionship, etc.

    I think those lead to at least general strategies, like “tit for tat” and its variations, across a wide spectrum of situations humans face. To re-use the chess analogy, there are a whole lot of variant rules of chess… but across a wide range of those rules, sacrificing your queen early is still a bad idea.

  23. #23 John
    April 8, 2010

    “though I wonder why he doesn’t just take the time (it’s not that long).” well this bloggers disdainful condescension provides a clue.

    “I’ve read many descriptions and accounts of the talk, and they are all rather accurate.” well no. actually at least half of the illustrious commentary from the great minds on the interweb who are supposedly Harris’ devastating critics badly bungle his basic claims(he is not saying there is a basis for moral judgements because we have consensus, whereby one person who disagrees ruins the project.)etc…

    “Harris’ own writings on the issue are themselves a lot more interesting than the statements he makes in the talk. The talk was mostly inane repetition of the same basic ideas, with irrelevant examples thrown in (“should we put cholera in the water?” – pointless blabber).” I agree that his writings give the first indication that his depth exceeds the popular presentation he gives at the TED conference. I suppose if he spoke like Hegel there, some unjustly unrecognized interweb geniuses would be happier, if that’s the sort of thing you’re after, well then..

    I don’t agree the talk was inane harping on the same idea. He used examples to flesh out some of the objections likely to be raised, and his responses to them. In the cholera example he took an extreme case to show that there is a right answer to the question, in any sense that doesn’t make nonsense of the term ‘well-being’ etc. And in fact, it’s the morass that the popular understanding of the ideas of Hume, Popper etc. have left peoples ideas about morality in that necessitate beginning so bluntly.

    It would be better for someone who is going to call Sam Harris a crank based on a recent talk he gave, to have seen it.

    And on this supposed heinous transgression Harris made in saying “I will be responding to this stupidity” and the collapse of all that is good it supposedly represents; He didn’t say Carroll is stupid or “an idiot” as some saw fit to quote(invent) him saying. He called Carroll’s reasoning stupid, and then apologized for being too open about how weak he found it. Big deal. get over it.

    And I notice our brilliant antagonist here who evidently grew up in the right ‘kind of society’ to assert “Harris is a bit of a dilettante with a flair for self-promotion and a habit of tweaking his enemies noses” ahh, I mistook him for someone who has a degree in Philosophy from Stanford, a doctorate in Neuroscience from UCLA, has studied religion and meditation practices for decades and risked his life to oppose the religious barbarism we’re blessed with at the moment. Uh oh, I detect a bit of crankery!

  24. #24 Joey Frantz
    April 8, 2010

    John, I have not seen a single blog post (or other article) that makes any of the errors you are mentioning. Want to link to one, written be someone who works for a university or significant organization?

    The fact that Harris “studied” meditation for a decade and has a PhD in neuroscience (acquired at about age 41 or so) does not deflate the charge that he is mostly an attention-grabbing “public intellectual” with nothing really significant to say. Sitting in the lotus position and doing some mental trickery is not, contrary to Harris’ ideas, anything scientific or noble. And he does not have a position at a research institution or any apparent aims to enter academia. Combine that with the obviously shoddy thinking presented in his TED talk, and I’d say the charge of crankery fits nicely.

  25. #25 John
    April 8, 2010

    “I have not seen a single blog post (or other article) that makes any of the errors you are mentioning. Want to link to one..?” “Sitting in the lotus position and doing some mental trickery is not, contrary to Harris’ ideas, anything scientific or noble.” There’s one.

    “does not deflate the charge that he is mostly an attention-grabbing “public intellectual” with nothing really significant to say.” This is a curious animus. You prefer philosophers who have the least possible impact? Is that what makes them authentic to you? what a strange complaint, unless envy lurks here. I also find it bizarre that you note with scorn that he receive his PhD at 41(how dare the charlatan!) You apparently don’t believe it is possible to study meditation, another curious claim. As for the implication that every “significant” idea or insight will come rubber-stamped from the academy, well…

  26. #26 C.S.Strowbridge
    April 9, 2010

    “Which has no bearing on the is-ought problem whatsoever.”

    It does make a huge difference when it comes to the argument about morals. Knowing what a neuron is makes arguing that your mental state is somehow separate from your physical state nearly impossible. Since your mental state is something that is objective, it can be studied. If it can be studied, it falls under the realm of science.

    It is as simple as that.

    All other points are moot. Saying, ‘David Hume said XYZ and he’s a genius!’ doesn’t matter.

    “Fixed it for you.”

    No you didn’t. You created a strawman where an individual’s wellbeing is all that matters when it comes to the outcome of an action.

    “Of course, one can argue that we are concerned more about the average wellbeing of a population rather than individuals, but then that opens up the can of worms regarding slavery.”

    Only if you equate a criminal with a slave.

    Think of it this way…

    Person A punches Person B and steals his lunch money. This reduces the overall wellbeing of society. At this point we can punish Person A, which would lower the average wellbeing of society some more, or we can do nothing.

    At this point you are arguing that science says doing nothing is the more moral action to take.

    However… and this is the key…

    If we do nothing, we encourage more people like Person A, who will continue to lower the overall wellbeing of society. We can determine this by looking a societies that don’t have law and order. They fall apart.

    We can use science to determine what is and is not the moral thing to do. We do this because, and this is vitally important…

    ANYTHING WITH A CAUSE AND EFFECT FALLS UNDER THE REALM OF SCIENCE.

    All of it.

    (On a side note, I’m not shouting there, just using capitals to emphasize.)

    I don’t see why this is such a controversial claim to make.

  27. #27 C.S.Strowbridge
    April 9, 2010

    C. S. Strowbridge: “How would you know [if you're mischaracterizing his views]?” See my posts @6 and @8. I read what Harris wrote, which one hopes is representative of his views.

    Yes. I did see your posts. I read them. I didn’t go out of my way to avoid direct evidence.

    You, on the other hand, seem determined to avoid direct evidence and instead rely on indirect evidence.

    It seems the time you’ve put into trying to defend your decision not to watch the video, you could have watched it several times over.

    If you can understand why looking at the most direct evidence possible is advantageous, then you have no business talking about what is and is not science.

  28. #28 Robert C.
    April 9, 2010

    “I did see Harris’ talk. And there’s a really simple rejoinder: come up with a scientifically testable reason that we should give up having slaves.”

    Slavery hurts the slave. We can measure this. Ta da!

    …and slavery often benefits the wellbeing of the slaveowner. So you have a cost of wellbeing and a benefit of wellbeing due to slavery. Under Harris’s rough outline of an idea, if we could “measure” these benefits and costs to wellbeing scientifically – and found that the benefits well outweighed the costs – then strap on those shackles and get out your whip, baby!!! Slavery is now a moral imperative!

    Same goes for Carroll’s example. Pretend we have a gun stuck in Bob’s face, in the midst of a moral conundrum: we can kill Bob (which would certainly end his wellbeing), and it will save the lives of three people (give them benefits to wellbeing). Harris implicitly argues that, if we can find great benefits to the wellbeing of those three people (their benefits > Bob’s costs on Harris’ Magical Scientific Scale of WellbeingTM), then the “right” thing to do is pull the trigger, splatter Bob’s brain matter across the wall, and say “but I was being scientific!!!” when the cops show up.

    Any good scientist should know that empirical evidence oftentimes doesn’t lead to clear-cut “right versus wrong,” “truth versus untruth” conclusions. Sometimes evidence just makes sticky problems stickier. Harris is trying to oversimplify science to a black-and-white yes-or-no methodology, and that, of course, is ultimately delusional.

    I find this so scary because of Harris’s past arguments. It seems he’s making these arguments on morality to try and satisfy some of his past claims, i.e. he’s looking for ways to justify that nuking of religious socieities. “Their religion was going to harm the wellbeing of others, so we’re scientifically justified in nuking a country and snuffing out the lives of millions. Our benefits outweigh the costs of their deaths.” Or, more narrowly: “That pastor was going to spread irrational thinking to hundreds and harm their wellbeing, so I did the moral thing and slit his throat.” That’s frightening.

  29. #29 J. J. Ramsey
    April 9, 2010

    C.S.Strowbridge: “Knowing what a neuron is makes arguing that your mental state is somehow separate from your physical state nearly impossible.”

    Which has nothing to do with the is-ought distinction, which is about the difference between facts and values. Mental states, regardless of whether they are physical or not, are a matter of “is” not “ought.”

    C.S.Strowbridge: “You created a strawman where an individual’s wellbeing is all that matters when it comes to the outcome of an action.”

    No, I replaced something that science can’t do, namely make a non-empirical claim about the morality of an action, with something that it in principle can do, namely measure changes in wellbeing.

    C.S.Strowbridge: “Only if you equate a criminal with a slave.”

    Not at all. Both the punishment of criminals and the treatment of slaves involve the increase in wellbeing of one at the expense of another. Of course, given a certain set of values, one can argue why slavery should be forbidden while the punishment of criminals is not, but science can’t give us those values.

  30. #30 Josh Rosenau
    April 9, 2010

    C. S. Strwobridge: “You, on the other hand, seem determined to avoid direct evidence and instead rely on indirect evidence.”

    Oh FFS. Harris’s written explanation of his views is not indirect evidence. I responded to the written version rather than the video version.

  31. #31 thp
    April 9, 2010

    Posted by: Robert C. | April 9, 2010 2:56 AM:
    “Same goes for Carroll’s example. Pretend we have a gun stuck in Bob’s face, [..]”

    Your example is an obvious fallacy by misrepresenting the argument. Harris is not even claiming we can practicly make these calculations. You make the error in taking the morality of the police to be a legitimate authority while the WellbeingTheory in actuality does have authority by merit of it’s evidentiality.
    Next to that, your example is by today’s insights not very likely even to be a rare occurence. The basic intuitive understanding and response of a society to situations like you presented obviously have to be taken into account for the theory to work (among many other variables). The point to make is that these facts do exist whether we can see their moral value or not.

    “”That pastor was going to spread irrational thinking to hundreds and harm their wellbeing, so I did the moral thing and slit his throat.” That’s frightening.”

    This is basicly the same argument, so i’ll stick to my previous comment.

  32. #32 thp
    April 9, 2010

    Posted by: J. J. Ramsey | April 9, 2010 4:38 AM:
    “Which has nothing to do with the is-ought distinction, which is about the difference between facts and values. Mental states, regardless of whether they are physical or not, are a matter of “is” not “ought.”

    Well then, if we take our mental states to be what ‘is’, as you suggest, and combine that with the fact that these same mental states can ‘come up’ with (produce) ‘oughts’, doesn’t that mean that an ought has come from an is?
    If you still claim ought’s are unable to be derived from what is, then where at all do they come from?

  33. #33 J. J. Ramsey
    April 9, 2010

    thp: “Well then, if we take our mental states to be what ‘is’, as you suggest, and combine that with the fact that these same mental states can ‘come up’ with (produce) ‘oughts’, doesn’t that mean that an ought has come from an is?”

    Only if you commit a fallacy of ambiguity. Sure, if someone makes an “ought” statement, they are going to have certain mental/neural states while doing it. However, that is true whether someone says “Love thy neighbor” or “Kill all the Jews.” The fact that someone has some mental state while making an “ought” statement doesn’t make the statement binding.

  34. #34 John
    April 10, 2010

    “Pretend we have a gun stuck in Bob’s face, in the midst of a moral conundrum: we can kill Bob (which would certainly end his wellbeing), and it will save the lives of three people (give them benefits to wellbeing). Harris implicitly argues that, if we can find great benefits to the wellbeing of those three people (their benefits > Bob’s costs on Harris’ Magical Scientific Scale of WellbeingTM), then the “right” thing to do is pull the trigger, splatter Bob’s brain matter across the wall, and say “but I was being scientific!!!” when the cops show up.” Yes clearly this is the vision of life Sam Harris would like to urge upon us. How could I have failed to see it?

  35. #35 Joey Frantz
    April 10, 2010

    John,

    Harris has said “the methodology of Buddhism…could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.” How was I distorting him? Harris acts as though meditation is some sort of rigorous form of empirical inquiry. He’s said things to this effect over and over.

    But even if I was wrong about the above, my statement wouldn’t qualify, since I was not giving an account of his lecture at TED.

    As for your response about his crankiness:

    It’s not wrong to get a PhD at 41, or to spend a shit-ton of time studying meditation. But none of these things help his case when the question comes up of whether or not he’s a crank. I will say that he is a scientist, but barely. He has advocated some silly positions on issues of pseudoscience, such as the idea that xenoglossy may be a real phenomenon worthy of scientific investigation. And now he’s spatting uninformed, unreasoned stuff at TED.

    Am I just calling him a crank because I’m envious of him? Maybe I am – his wife sure is pretty. But I would be even more envious of him if he was a seasoned scientist or philosopher who was obviously committed to the highest standards of critical thinking and argumentation. What a life he would have, if that were the case!

  36. #36 thp
    April 11, 2010

    Posted by: J. J. Ramsey | April 9, 2010 3:40 PM
    “However, that is true whether someone says “Love thy neighbor” or “Kill all the Jews.” The fact that someone has some mental state while making an “ought” statement doesn’t make the statement binding.”
    But then the question can be asked, can you be bound to your own morality? Your answer will probably be no and ‘ought’ in the binding sense will have had no meaning at all.
    But still the result of the Harris theory of Morality will produce sentences like: “if you want to be moral, you ought (not) to do X”.

  37. #37 C.S.Strowbridge
    May 11, 2010

    “…and slavery often benefits the wellbeing of the slaveowner.”

    It’s probably too late to get a response to this, but…

    You are making one minor error. There are consequences to your actions on a macro scale.

    We can look at societies that didn’t punish criminals and see if they are better off or worse off than societies that do.

    We can do the same to societies that permit slavery.

    Those that say, “Morality isn’t scientific.” are in essence saying, “Do whatever the fuck you want, because there are no fucking consequences. At least none that we can measure.”

    This is completely stupid.

    And yes, I could have wrote that in a much more polite way, but I don’t care.

    What the anti-science crowd fails to understand is that any time there is a cause and an effect, it is science. Any time there is evidence, it is science.

    SCIENCE IS EVERYTHING.

    THERE IS NO GOD IN THE GAPS.

    It’s the same argument used to attack evolution. It doesn’t make sense there, it doesn’t make sense here.

Current ye@r *