A Confutation of both Sam Harris and Richard Carrier on Science and Morality
September 5, 2013
#1 ZF (Guest) on Friday September 06, 2013 at 11:15am
A few questions:
- Do you agree with Harris’ assertion that morality is concerned about the experience of conscious beings? It seems like a reasonable point. I can’t imagine any sort of morality in a universe devoid of consciousness.
- Is morality a natural, material phenomenon? Obviously a believer might say so, but I wouldn’t. I don’t accept any notion of supernaturally-delivered morality.
- Our behavior and the consequences of it are natural, material phenomena, correct?
Based on the ideas above, morality appears to me to be a natural, material phenomenon. If so, it should be, in principle, describable through science.
I’m relatively new to the is/ought problem, but my understanding is that no amount of descriptive work in the absence of an insertion of a value judgment can tell us what we ought to do. Again, I wouldn’t accept any supernatural “solution” to this problem.
The best link I can think of is mirror neurons or more generally how the experiences of one entity can influence those of another. I have my own positive experiences (pleasure, satisfaction, comfort, etc) and negative experiences (pain, disappointment, discomfort). Those experiences in others also affect me. Fictional characters can even evoke feelings in me. I feel other people’s pleasure/pain, happiness/sadness, etc.
- Does the is/ought problem apply to my own approach of positive experiences and retreat from negative ones?
#2 David Thomas Devine (Guest) on Friday September 06, 2013 at 2:23pm
As Sam Harris himself pointed out, if you replace all references to moral well being with physical well being (health), it seems that this author has refuted the idea that we can never really get to a place where people are healthy through the use of scientific principles of observation.
(Consider: “the very notion of how specifically to “maximize the (health) of any human being in any particular set of circumstances” is far too vague to apply methodologically for concrete results”)
Further, declarations such as “We’d suspect the presence of a deeply buried “Is-Ought” gap, and we’d be right.” are asserted without evidence ... where is the ‘is-ought’ gap that the aliens are concealing from us? (Generally speaking I have not found arguments for ‘is-ought’ to be convincing, aside from the specific idea that authors of philosophical material often make jumps without explanation, in the model of - Step 1: The way things are, Step 2: ???, Step 3: Profit!)
#3 John Shook on Saturday September 07, 2013 at 11:04am
Hi ZF, good questions. I am a naturalist so I agree that everything about how human beings do morality is natural—nothing unnatural is required for explaining how humans maintain and enact their moral beliefs. That’s just a descriptive matter, not a prescriptive matter. The question of which things people actually take to be moral is one issue, while the issue of what truly are our moral duties is quite another. Not everything we think is moral is really moral. Hence the need for more wise thinking about what we really OUGHT to be doing.
You ask whether “morality is concerned about the experience of conscious beings”? Morality is actually concerned with what conscious beings do to each other. Of course, unless there is consciousness (in some minimal sense of awareness), what you do to an unaware thing isn’t a moral problem as far as that thing is concerned.
#4 John Shook on Saturday September 07, 2013 at 11:12am
Sorry, my points are immune from the refutation you offer.
You write, “this author has refuted the idea that we can never really get to a place where people are healthy through the use of scientific principles of observation.” That’s just a refusal to read my final point about using science to determine useful means for achieving our decided-upon values.
Of course I’d rely on science to tell me how to live healthily to 200 years of age, if I decided to try to live to that age. But no amount of science could tell me that I can know that I have a moral duty to live to 200 years of age. It can’t even tell me that I ought to want to live to be 200 years old. If can tell me what shall constitute “being healthy” as I grow older. But whether I ought to grow that old is not a moral value determinable by science alone.
#5 ZF (Guest) on Monday September 16, 2013 at 4:21am
Dr. Shook - Thanks for your response. Some further thoughts:
I can’t decide whether the present quandary over the is/ought problem is deep, insightful philosophy or an exercise in obtuseness.
From a practical viewpoint, i think Harris is on pretty solid footing. Is it not reasonable to treat wellbeing as axiomatic in a discussion of morality? Is there not sufficient convergence of human experience to address fundamental issues (e.g. pain) and perhaps more complex ones (e.g. dignity)?
If our sense of obligation is naturally produced, we should be able to scientifically describe the “ought” phenomenon. Does this get us anywhere? Or would we just push the problem up a level and have to consider what our oughts OUGHT TO be?
I’m still contemplating the issue of one’s own experience and motivation. Is there an is/ought problem to be found in my own desire to avoid aversive experiences and pursue pleasant ones?
#6 Philosophia (Guest) on Thursday September 19, 2013 at 5:47pm
Dr. Shook, Will you be replying to Dr. Carrier’s rebuttal of your confutation found at:
#7 steph (Guest) on Wednesday October 02, 2013 at 4:16pm
why have you disabled comments on your previous post?
#8 steph (Guest) on Thursday October 03, 2013 at 10:54pm
Humanism fosters learning, inquiry, and the critical spirit, including the ability to be self critical. In your previous post, in which you make the insensible claim that religion is the “opposite” of humanism, you have by inference equated humanism with atheism. Your claim is both is “epically silly and ... historically indemonstrable”.
By disabling comments on your post you have contradicted the humanist spirit of critical inquiry and demonstrated that you hold your opinions with uncritical conviction preventing honest discussion. As a cultural spirit, humanism is focused on the quest for knowledge and meaning on the works of men and women rather than on the works of gods or claims of beliefs or non beliefs. Atheism is not a sufficient description of its content. From the time of its earliest practitioners in the west, humanism has been a celebration of human achievement in all spheres of learning, art, craft, and ethics. I think you are well aware that Joseph Hoffmann has refuted you in his response on The New Oxonian.