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Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions
Posted: 23 March 2010 09:27 AM   [ Ignore ]
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What Do You Believe? Conscience vs. Reason: Can Values Be Fact?

Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww

TED lectures:
http://www.ted.com/

SAM HARRIS lecture:
http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html

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Posted: 23 March 2010 09:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Sam Harris seems to understand some of the long-standing issues in ethics.  But in this 20 or so minutes of babbling at TED, I don’t see that he’s actually done any work in addressing them.

I enjoyed Sam’s books.  But the more often I’ve heard him talk since then the less I feel he has something to say.  His scientific work is intriguing and I hope it’ll soon turn this around.

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Posted: 23 March 2010 10:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Hmm, Harris is a very talented speaker, but here I must disagree with him. It would be probably difficult to find an objective moral truth since not all people are the same. The way Muslims in most Arabic countries behave today probably doesn’t differ much from how Europeans behaved a thousand years ago. How much of the differences between the two (or any other) cultures are due to the influence of the genes? Sure, sometimes it is easier to fix that which was caused by biology compared to that which was caused by the environment. But these are problems that would need to be addressed if objective moral truth actually existed. Does it?

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Posted: 23 March 2010 01:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I think Harris is completely off-base.  Scientific reality would exist with or without organisms to observe it, and it has no relationship to human morality.  While the scientific basis for behavior of life is to replicate itself, I don’t see that as having any connection with other facets of behavior since there are a wide variety of such actions which can contribute to successful replication.  Just because my morality is summarized by “maximize help, minimize harm, and enjoy myself”  it’s no more based in science than the huge variations in morality that the various societies and individuals have demonstrated. 

Harris is just one more example of someone who is well recognized as an expert in one field so his ego gets confused and he thinks he’s an expert in all fields.

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Posted: 23 March 2010 01:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I posted a short writeup about this on the CFI blog:

http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/sam_harris_is_back_arguing_science_can_answer_moral_questions/

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Posted: 23 March 2010 03:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Thanks Michael.  I didn’t realize that Sam has a new book out.  Based on his TED talk, I’m not too eager to read it.

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Posted: 23 March 2010 10:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I don’t see any issues with the scientific analysis of “values” and their biological origins, but I do have trouble seeing how people get around the is-ought problem. Obviously that goes for both atheists and theists. I’m just not quite sure what it means to say that someone “should” do/not do something.

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Posted: 24 March 2010 12:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Most of what he said is philosophical. His claims are in many ways no different from Plato’s; he seems to want to say that there are certain truths about the good life and people may easily be mistaken in their actions/desires insofar as their desires, as being affected by environment, are often not aimed at attaining the higher ‘goods’ necessary for happiness (the good life).  Although I do not see any science in this part of the discussion (and I’m not sure he intends for there to be any), I do give him credit for attacking the moral relativists.

He does make one interesting scientific point at the beginning of the talk: he argues that scientific facts are useful in our moral calculations because they help determine whether and when certain creatures are suffering.  This echos philosopher Peter Singer’s point about how our morality should focus on all sentient beings (as opposed to just humans).  As such, I would agree with him that moral theory could draw from scientific discovery.

With that said, this guy does kind of scare me. I think that the discoveries of neuroscience are fascinating and can be encorporated in our views of right and wrong, but some of his propositions about solving social gender norms and finding the “best way of expressing love” seem to jump so far ahead of the game that I can’t help but worry that this type of thinking will muddle the distinction between subjective social values and scientific facts.

[ Edited: 24 March 2010 12:47 AM by aroyal641 ]
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Posted: 30 March 2010 11:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I have to agree that I think Harris is jumping the gun here…. We need to make a more simple transition first: to have the general public possess a basic understanding of what constitutes “moral behavior”.  It is not really that difficult and could be taught to most grade-schoolers in a few hours (reducing harm to others, what is the greatest good for the greatest number, etc.), but it is something that most schools leave to parents or churches, both of which fail miserably in providing a clear picture of how the average person can analyze even a simple moral problem.  Without this foundation, no amount of scientific data is going to help.  In fact, it may turn people away if a common understanding of morality is not established first.

Once people can reach some common ground, then experimental data, impartial informants, etc., can then help refine and inform moral choices.

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Posted: 30 March 2010 11:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Philosophy and ethics in grade school? I like that idea

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Posted: 30 March 2010 11:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Dear Cracosdale,

I agree with your approach.
I think working moral and ethical issues through the humanities (social studies, which is history in the public schools, and literature) is the best approach.

Gary

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Posted: 30 March 2010 11:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I’m inclined to think the proper role of science in moral debates is to establish the facts which we weigh rather than the values by which we weigh them. Science can establish, for example, that non-human primates have the capacity to experience painin a way difficult to distinguish from that of human beings. What we do with that information, however, is based on how we feel about it, which I don’t see science heping us with.

Granted, the feelings and intuitions that ifnorm moral judgements take are a function of brain activity, and this is dictated by genes and environment (exactly how is another argment for another thead). SO science can perhaps explain how we make moral judgements, and possibly even explain or predict which judgements we will make under what circumstances. But I’d be very surprised if that has any visceral affect on how we feel about things or the actions we choose to take. After all, science has gradually done away with most of the rational pillars supporting supernaturalism, but the overwhelming majority of people still believe in such things, and many allow them to dictate the terms of their daily lives.

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Posted: 30 March 2010 11:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Dear Brennen McKenzie,

TRUE, but if you are working with grade schoolers in the public schools, and you approach ethics, morals and empathy through the language of science their eyes will turn to glass.

Gary the Grouch

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Posted: 30 March 2010 02:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Kaizen - 23 March 2010 10:50 PM

I don’t see any issues with the scientific analysis of “values” and their biological origins, but I do have trouble seeing how people get around the is-ought problem. Obviously that goes for both atheists and theists. I’m just not quite sure what it means to say that someone “should” do/not do something.

Agreed. Prescriptive terms like “should” quickly move to the imperative and then on to the Imperial. Run them by a priest and there’s your morals.

Rather than rassle with this idea of morality, might it not be simpler to posit that it is instead a character issue in our species? Not so long ago a man’s character was his fate (Heraclitus), before it became cloaked in fashion and glazed over with money. In simpler times, character stood out for what it was - internal quality in a person. So to begin with, we can assume that Man is innately moral, and from there people start in bending the twig… i.e. We are born Humanists.

Return with me now to the playing fields of Sparta and Eton, and let’s join a real gymnasium, before we learned to fight with our feet and f* with our faces. But I digress… ‘-)

[ Edited: 30 March 2010 02:29 PM by Martinus ]
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Posted: 30 March 2010 04:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Martinus - 30 March 2010 02:26 PM
Kaizen - 23 March 2010 10:50 PM

“...Prescriptive terms like “should” quickly move to the imperative and then on to the Imperial. . . .”

Although certainly prescriptive, these concepts are almost always phrased as descriptive (“right”, “wrong”, etc.) by the religious.  I think the same can be attempted in a secular way.  However, instead of stating it as “something is wrong because God says so”, it is reframed as “something is wrong because it hurts someone else”.  I really can’t imagine an irate parent coming to school to complain on those terms, although it requires a teacher that can navigate some difficult questions with regard to religion—probably the main reason this is not attempted in a standard public classroom.

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Posted: 30 March 2010 05:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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The problem with behavior principles which are based on voluntary observance is that each country, region, province, county, city, village have their own local morals. I believe it is a far reach to envision anyone behaving in a “neutral” humanistic way. Humanism is a philosophy and offers no reward or punishmenht for bad behavior (other than by law). On the other hand, religion offers reward for good behavior (heaven, 40 virgins), but also punishes bad behavior (hell, damnation).
Thus any Humanist movement should stress the emotional reward and public respect for a “moral” lifestyle and severe physical penalties under law (incarceration, community service) for bad behavior. Otherwise it’s just talk.

[ Edited: 30 March 2010 05:48 PM by Write4U ]
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