Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

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Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Nibbida » Mon May 03, 2010 6:38 pm

There's been mention of Sam Harris on this list before. In this TED talk he talks about science answering moral questions:

http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_sci ... right.html


What he says seems to be not too inconsistent with a Buddhist view. I'm reminded of the Buddha's advice to Rahula (Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta) where he says to look at actions, speech, and thoughts and to weigh whether it would lead to self-affliction, the affliction of others, etc., to examine this beforehand, during the action, and afterwards. It's "moral" decisions based on firsthand observation rather than dogmatic adherence to ancient texts.
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Ben » Mon May 03, 2010 10:14 pm

Thanks Nibbida

I think I might have already posted that talk. However, its always good to revisit his works. Its also good to find other "fans" of Sam Harris here on DW.
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Tex » Mon May 03, 2010 11:25 pm

Sam Harris for president.
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Pannapetar » Tue May 04, 2010 9:45 am

No, it can't!

Science can inform us about facts which relate to moral questions. Science cannot by itself answer moral question.

I usually appreciate the sober analysis of Sam Harris (I'm a long-time admirer), but this is clearly a piece of sophistry. Any philosophy fresher can identify it as such. Please note how Sam Harris subtly changes the message in the first minutes of the talk. He does not say that science can answer moral questions. Instead he says: "The separation between science and human values is an illusion,", "values are certain kinds of facts," and "there is no notion of morality that is not reducible to a concern about conscious experience." Even if we agree with all of these statements, it does not logically follow from any of them that moral questions can be answered by science.

What he is saying in essence, is that science can give us an informational foundation for value judgements. Duh! That's pretty uncontroversial I suppose.

There is another talk by Sam Harris related to this topic on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Nibbida » Tue May 04, 2010 2:11 pm

Thomas,

You may be right about that. I need to think about it more.

I think the entire talk hinges upon this connection he makes: "Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures." If you accept that the purpose of values is to enhance well-being, then you can evaluate which values lead to the greatest well-being. Notice that he does not say that science can give us values. He says that it can answer moral questions.

For example, there is a lot of research showing, unanimously, that a materialistic orientation is a train wreck in terms of emotional and social well-being. Conversely, I have not seen a single research study suggesting that materialism is good or even neutral for a person. So that would be the kind pf research Harris refers to in saying that it can help answer moral questions.

I am both fascinated by and skeptical of research, since it has both strengths and shortcomings. I personally don't need a study to tell me not to be materialistic. My firsthand experience with values like compassion, kindness, patience, mindfulness, generosity, equanimity, etc. is all I will ever need to continue practicing and developing them further. However, I find that having some quantitative data allows one to speak a little more objectively about it, like "See? We're not just making this up." It's easy for people to write off certain values as individual preferences.

Buddhism wisely advises people to take a close look and see for oneself whether practicing something like selfishness or generosity leads to greater well-being. However, if the person never takes a good look, they may continue for years, decades, or a lifetime without even considering a change. Having research to support the importance of a value makes it a little less easy to dismiss. In my experience, it makes a good teaching tool, a way to get a foot in the door, to persuade someone to make the initial effort to practice something enough to get over the hump and to the point where they start noticing the effects. In the same way, I find movies like The Dhamma Brothers to be very persuasive.

My understanding of Harris's point is that scientific methods can be used as a litmus test, a reality check, on which values lead to the greatest well-being. Even though that approach is fraught with it's own potential pitfalls, it allows an approach that is a little less subject to individual biases.

What do you think?
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Pannapetar » Tue May 04, 2010 3:33 pm

Nibbida,

With your permission I divide my answer into two parts: what I think about Harris' speech and what I think about the problem itself.

I think that Harris has an agenda. His speech is motivated by the desire to divorce morality from religion. This becomes clear if you read his book or view other interviews or debates with Sam Harris. Unfortunately, he proposes to replace religion with science as the foundation for morality. The argument he develops in favour of this suggestion is poorly conceived, to be frank. He is a good orator, so perhaps he can convince an audience, but I doubt that he can convince people with a minimal schooling in philosophy. First, there is no science of well-being or conscious states. People can disagree about what exactly constitutes well-being. Second, morality must weigh the interests of the individual against the interests of others or the community, a question which is not open to scientific investigation. Third, ethics does not really need a "foundation". It can very well stand on its own and it has been recognised as an independent (though certainly interconnected) branch of philosophy for as long as philosophy exists.

Now about the problem itself. To argue that science should provide the foundation of morality is absurd for two reasons: (1) ethics is neither an empirical science nor is it theorisable in any scientific or mathematical sense, (2) science is a (very) good servant but a (very) bad master and putting science into the master role is a really bad idea. I agree with Harris in only one respect, namely that moral statements are statements about facts, or -philosophically speaking- truth proposals. This amounts to what philosophers call moral realism. However, ethical propositions are a different type of statements. They are different from the truth-propositions we know from science by virtue of being non-quantifiable. This means that it is impossible to come up with ethical propositions that are always true or always false, or even to assign concrete truth probabilities to such statements.

Take for example the statement "killing is wrong". This statement is very often true, which is to say that it has a rather high truth probability. However, we can come up with scenarios where killing is justified. Think about self-defense or shooting a terrorist with a strapped bomb. Hence, moral statements must be seen in context and are dependent on the circumstances. This neither implies that moral propositions are relative nor subjective, but it implies that they are not quantifiable. For precisely this reason, it is impossible to formulate a scientific theory of normative ethics. It has been tried before in the history of Western and Eastern though, but it has never been accomplished.

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Nibbida » Wed May 05, 2010 8:09 pm

Thomas,

Pannapetar wrote: First, there is no science of well-being or conscious states. People can disagree about what exactly constitutes well-being.


I think these people may disagree:
9781593855819.jpg
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Thanks for the time you took to carefully respond. You certainly point out some pitfalls that anyone would need to take into consideration.

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby alan » Thu May 06, 2010 2:36 am

Pannapeter,
You are assuming an extremely flip tone. Might be a good idea to take a deep breath or two.
Tell us when you write a book that can match Sam Harris, and I'll take you a bit more seriously.
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby alan » Thu May 06, 2010 2:49 am

And besides that, Dammit, you are encroaching on my territory! I thought I was the flip, arrogant guy here! :tongue:
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Ben » Thu May 06, 2010 2:54 am

Hi Pannapetar

Dr Craig Hassad is another person who is likely to disagree with you.

51eN58mDJRL__SL500_AA300_.jpg
51eN58mDJRL__SL500_AA300_.jpg (14.7 KiB) Viewed 972 times


He is senior lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at Monash University and a leading proponent of complementary medicine and mindfulness meditation-based therapies in medicine.
kind regards

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Pannapetar » Thu May 06, 2010 3:21 am

Nibbida wrote:Thomas, I think these people may disagree.


Yes, there might be people who disagree. However, this book only shows that the topic has been written about, not that there actually exists a science of well-being. The authority on the topic, by the way, appears to be Ed Diener. Upon looking up this book on Amazon it turns out that this book by Eid and Larsen is actually about Diener's research. What does this tell us? It indicates that well-being research is a bit of a fringe science in psychology.

The objection reminds me of a similar plea someone once made on another forum when I mentioned that there is no generally accepted theory of consciousness. He came up with this title by a rather famous contemporary philosopher:

Image

Having actually read this book, I found this quite amusing.

alan wrote:You are assuming an extremely flip tone.


That's possibly my natural reaction when I encounter sophistry. Sorry, can't help it. Consider that Harris has ample combat experience as a debater and that he knows how to craft an argument that serves his worldview. As previously mentioned, I agree with him on many points, but the truth seeker in me just can't let a crappy argument pass. I am not planning on writing a book any time soon, so you might as well address the counter arguments I already brought forward. Cheeky enough for your taste? :tongue:

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby alan » Thu May 06, 2010 3:53 am

What could make you think I was hoping for a cheeky response?
Do you define everyone who is good at presenting his point of view as a Sophist?

You agree with him on many points. Ok. Let's start with that. Which of his points make the most sense to you?
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Nibbida » Thu May 06, 2010 3:53 am

Pannapetar wrote:Yes, there might be people who disagree. However, this book only shows that the topic has been written about, not that there actually exists a science of well-being. The authority on the topic, by the way, appears to be Ed Diener. Upon looking up this book on Amazon it turns out that this book by Eid and Larsen is actually about Diener's research. What does this tell us? It indicates that well-being research is a bit of a fringe science in psychology.


Well-being is not at all at the fringe of psychology. Some of the most respected researchers in the field publish papers on the topic in the most respected journals. Ed Diener is only one of many. I don't expect this to change your mind on the topic, only to indicate that it's far from fringe. The contents of the book by Eid & Larsen outline some of the scientific research on well-being, meaning people forming hypotheses, testing them by collecting data, yadda yadda. Hence, science of well-being. Another book, Character Strengths & Virtues, edited by Peterson & Seligman is an exhaustive review of research on well-being.

You may disagree with the undertaking and even have legitimate concerns with it. So be it. All the better, in fact. But to dismiss it as fringe or treat it as if it didn't exist is inaccurate.
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby alan » Thu May 06, 2010 4:06 am

After that maybe you can clarify your understanding of the difference between Morality and Ethics. They seem to be blurred in your post.
No need to write a book; a paragraph or two should suffice.
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Pannapetar » Thu May 06, 2010 5:50 am

Nibbida wrote:You may disagree with the undertaking and even have legitimate concerns with it. So be it. All the better, in fact. But to dismiss it as fringe or treat it as if it didn't exist is inaccurate.


I'm not keen to delve into this much deeper, because it seems tangential to the thread topic. But let me suggest an experiment. We both go to our local university's library, psychology department. There we try to assess the number of books on well-being and compare it to the number of books on a mainstream topic such as cognitive psychology and to the number of books on an esoteric subject such as transpersonal psychology. Where would you expect the numbers to come in? You could also quickly check the Wikipedia list of disciplines in psychology or the index of psychology topics. I don't even find "well-being" or "happiness" in there, but I do find transpersonal psychology. What does this suggest?

alan wrote:Do you define everyone who is good at presenting his point of view as a Sophist?


Certainly not. A sophist is someone who uses philosophical arguments and rhetorics to push an agenda regardless whether the arguments or the agenda are sound. In modern days, the closest thing we have are spokespersons and speech writers. Harris is pretty much a spokesperson for his own cause. He doesn't appear to shy away from arguments that are less than sound, such as the one in the Ted talk we discuss here. However, I agree with Harris in many points, for example that faith propositions must be scrutinised, that atheism is the default position, that there should be no tolerance towards fundamentalism, that education and public institutions ought to be secular and a bunch of other little things. I don't agree with some of his philosophical ideas.

alan wrote:After that maybe you can clarify your understanding of the difference between Morality and Ethics.


The word morality can mean a bunch of things from virtue to ethical doctrine, moral proposition, or code of conduct. The meaning of ethics is perhaps more precise, as it denotes the theory of morality, or the branch of philosophy that deals with moral questions. However, it's also sometimes used to mean a set of moral codes of an individual or group. You can hardly blame me for the semantic blur, that's just how these words are commonly used.

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Ben » Thu May 06, 2010 6:28 am

Hi Pannapetar
Pannapetar wrote: But let me suggest an experiment. We both go to our local university's library, psychology department. There we try to assess the number of books on well-being and compare it to the number of books on a mainstream topic such as cognitive psychology and to the number of books on an esoteric subject such as transpersonal psychology. Where would you expect the numbers to come in? You could also quickly check the Wikipedia list of disciplines in psychology or the index of psychology topics. I don't even find "well-being" or "happiness" in there, but I do find transpersonal psychology. What does this suggest?


Having had some experience working in libraries, including university libraries, your proposed experiment above is meaningless, There are a lot of factors that impact collection development, least of which is whether a particular subject is deemed "mainstream" or "esoteric". Furthermore, the current peer-reviewed literature generally doesn't appear in monograph form for a number of years. It appears in journals, and increasingly, e-journals.
I can go on and on, but its not important and incidental.

So I think this is a good point to request that everyone return to the topic
Thanks for your cooperation

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Pannapetar » Thu May 06, 2010 7:55 am

Ben wrote:Furthermore, the current peer-reviewed literature generally doesn't appear in monograph form for a number of years. It appears in journals, and increasingly, e-journals.


Does it matter at all? For all I care, you can take the number of published articles in psychology journals referring to the said topics and the numerical results would still produce the same conclusion: that it isn't mainstream. And even if there was something close to a science of happiness (perhaps based on clever psychometrics), what would that imply for our question: can science answer moral questions? After all, morality is primarily concerned with right and wrong (or good and evil) and only indirectly with well-being. Now, as Buddhists we might give special importance to happiness (as opposed to suffering), which perhaps implies an eudaimonic leaning in ethics, but there is absolutely no consensus on this. Some might view salvation as more important, others might argue in favour of pleasure maximisation, some in favour of the greatest common good, and again others might argue in favour of certain virtues. What criteria should be applied? What exactly should be quantified? Are these questions that science can answer? Absolutely not.

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Shonin » Thu May 06, 2010 8:03 am

Well said.
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Nibbida » Thu May 06, 2010 4:46 pm

Pannapetar wrote:
Nibbida wrote:You may disagree with the undertaking and even have legitimate concerns with it. So be it. All the better, in fact. But to dismiss it as fringe or treat it as if it didn't exist is inaccurate.


I'm not keen to delve into this much deeper, because it seems tangential to the thread topic. But let me suggest an experiment. We both go to our local university's library, psychology department. There we try to assess the number of books on well-being and compare it to the number of books on a mainstream topic such as cognitive psychology and to the number of books on an esoteric subject such as transpersonal psychology. Where would you expect the numbers to come in? You could also quickly check the Wikipedia list of disciplines in psychology or the index of psychology topics. I don't even find "well-being" or "happiness" in there, but I do find transpersonal psychology. What does this suggest?

It suggests that you are looking for the wrong thing and in the wrong places. Checking wikipedia and libraries isn't going to give you an accurate picture of what's happening in a field. Psychology has spent decades obsessively cataloging everything that's wrong and sick about people. Scientific research on well-being is relatively newer, and calling it "well-being" research is even newer. You seem to be making conclusions about things that you are not well informed about.

In any case, the number of books printed on a topic does not indicate whether an approach is useful, important, or scientific.
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Pannapetar » Fri May 07, 2010 1:25 am

Nibbida,

You are probably right about me not being well-informed about recent developments in psychology. My freshman prep course in psychology dates back more than 20 years now and I chose an engineering career afterwards. However, I just noticed we have both overlooked that the Wikipedia list contains an entry named "positive psychology". The well-being research that was mentioned previously is grouped under that term.

Still, I wonder how relevant this is to Sam Harris' talk. I'd say it is probably not very relevant. I'd rather like to hear what you and others think about the question whether science can answer moral questions.

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