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Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions
Posted: 07 December 2010 10:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 211 ]
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GdB - 06 December 2010 05:52 AM

... It must in principle be possible to share.

Ok. But let’s look at why this might be true. The reason it can in principle be shared is because, as you said earlier, it’s “valid for everyone” or “part of nature” and thus can be observed by anyone. The reason why I don’t like the “sharing” is because it can lead us to a mistaken conclusion that true science is contingent on the communication between two or more people, which it isn’t.

GdB - 06 December 2010 05:52 AM

After this accident Harry went there, repeated the experiment, put them on his USB, and got safely home. Try this with the muslim terrorist. “yes, you must die first. If you don’t die, you will not know if it is true”.

If the Muslim terrorist’s views are correct, then death is merely a transitional period where one’s soul moves from one’s body into heaven (or hell). This would be a natural process. In fact, it could be nothing else. Your soul exists on Earth, then it exists in heaven. Similarly, Harry exists on Earth then exists on Larry’s planet (with a few decades of light-speed travel in between, of course). In principle, Harry can come back again and in principle your soul could come back from heaven to tell us about it. Indeed, if you’re a Christian, it is a tenet of your faith to believe this has happened at least once in (roughly) the past 2 millennia and will happen again at some point in the future.

Let’s say, instead of sending poor Larry to a different planet, we send him towards a supermassive black hole. It turns out that Larry is studying processes that take place beyond the event horizon of black holes. After crossing this particular event horizon and before he undergoes his inevitable “spaghettification,” he makes several major breakthroughs in his research. Unfortunately, the very nature of event horizons makes it physically impossible for anything to cross them a second time, let alone Larry’s communications regarding his findings. Poor Larry, it seems, is doomed to obscurity again.

Upon realizing this, Harry, a fellow event horizon researcher, exclaims in frustration, “How will I ever confirm my theory!” To which his assistant sardonically quips, “If you don’t die, you will not know if it is true.”

My claim is that Larry is doing science, even past the event horizon of the black hole.

GdB - 06 December 2010 05:52 AM

Can one speak of lack of evidence, where empirical, and sharable evidence is impossible principally?

“The word empirical denotes information gained by means of observation, experience, or experiment.” (from Wikipedia)

The second I enter Hell (which is where I will certainly be going given the content of my posts…) I will begin gathering an eternity’s worth of empirical data regarding the nature of my everlasting torture. Indeed, if I couldn’t “observe” or “experience” Hell, then what’s the point of me being there? The same goes for the Muslim who enters an Islamic heaven. The Qur’an even says things like:

“As for such, theirs will be Gardens of Eden, wherein rivers flow beneath them; therein they will be given armlets of gold and will wear green robes of finest silk and gold embroidery, reclining upon throne therein. Blest the reward, and fair the resting-place!” (from the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement)

If a Muslim gets into heaven and finds himself wearing a blue robe of mediocre quality silk and silver embroidery, isn’t that empirical evidence against this passage of the Qur’an? In principle, he could tell this to his fellow Muslims back on Earth, unfortunately the nature of heaven is such that communication can’t usually go back that way, past what we might call the “death horizon,” given my above example. In fact, one wonders how we can read about heaven in the Qur’an if information about heaven can, in principle, never be shared.

GdB - 06 December 2010 05:52 AM

Morality cannot be completely resolved in some factual statement(s). There always remain(s) a (few) moral values we cannot get rid of.

Just one I think, and that’s well-being. I’m not saying that there’s any larger or greater reason for valuing well-being. But, the fact is that we do, whether we like it or not. It is a legitimate human concern. And because we have this concern, we develop these complex and confusing moral systems that tend to be based on flawed reasoning and wildly inaccurate or outdated views of how the Universe works in order to achieve greater well-being.

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Posted: 07 December 2010 11:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 212 ]
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Gnostikosis - 06 December 2010 10:33 AM

I see science as a tool. It’s only as good as the individual wielding it. If we give “science” authority over our morals it won’t be science who has this authority. It will be an individual or perhaps a group of individuals who have this authority in the name of science.

Fair enough, I see your point. However, consider the following:

In Cameroon, “when young girls’ breasts begin to develop, hot stones or other hot objects are pressed firmly onto the breasts and moved back and forth, like an iron. Another variation is bandaging breasts with hot towels or fabrics, known as a breast band. This is used in conjunction with hot stones, pounding with a pestle or working the breasts with a spatula. The purpose of these practices is to retard breast growth,” given the belief that “growing breasts will attract the sexual interest of men.” According to custom, “the extremely painful procedure is repeated every day, until it has the desired results.” (from Female Genital Mutilation in Cameroon - pdf document)

It seems to me that moral conclusions like the one I’ve cited would have a far harder time gaining traction within a society if they had to be defended using science. Indeed, as we’ve increasingly relied on the science of medicine to guide our personal health, the result hasn’t been an authoritarian regime, but a rather dramatic increase in life expectancy and better living (see this interactive chart). So, like when it comes to health, I think we are better off with science than any other proposed method of discovery or justification (e.g. religion) when determining our well-being.

Gnostikosis - 06 December 2010 10:33 AM

I’m fine with with a scientific approach by individuals to accomplish their goals and determine necessary morals. I just don’t trust someone else to determine what those goals should be. We can reach an agreement as equals to determine common goals. However I wouldn’t accept and I don’t think anyone should accept someone else deciding what is right for them.

No one else is determining that well-being should be a goal. What I’m saying is that it already is. Does someone have to tell you to care about your friends? Or eat when you’re hungry? Or avoid pain?

Gnostikosis - 06 December 2010 10:33 AM

Better answers? Better according to who?

According to science. Again, look at the science of medicine for a parallel of what I’m talking about.

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Posted: 08 December 2010 07:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 213 ]
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Chocotacoi8 - 07 December 2010 10:52 PM

The reason why I don’t like the “sharing” is because it can lead us to a mistaken conclusion that true science is contingent on the communication between two or more people, which it isn’t.

Science as a human activity is contingent. Just the states of affairs ‘out there’ are not.

Chocotacoi8 - 07 December 2010 10:52 PM

In principle, Harry can come back again and in principle your soul could come back from heaven to tell us about it. Indeed, if you’re a Christian, it is a tenet of your faith to believe this has happened at least once in (roughly) the past 2 millennia and will happen again at some point in the future.

But if your argument is dependent on something people believe to be true, then I will surely not follow you. Just because propositions about heaven and hell seem empirical, they are not.
Try to apply your position on people who had a near death experience. Is it sure that live after our death, that our soul survives death, as many of them say?

Chocotacoi8 - 07 December 2010 10:52 PM

Unfortunately, the very nature of event horizons makes it physically impossible for anything to cross them a second time, let alone Larry’s communications regarding his findings. Poor Larry, it seems, is doomed to obscurity again.

Apply your position on well-being. What if we cannot communicate this ‘scientific fact’? Is it part of science?

Chocotacoi8 - 07 December 2010 10:52 PM

In fact, one wonders how we can read about heaven in the Qur’an if information about heaven can, in principle, never be shared.

Well, take a wild guess… Because it is no information at all, but just plain fantasy?

Chocotacoi8 - 07 December 2010 10:52 PM

I’m not saying that there’s any larger or greater reason for valuing well-being. But, the fact is that we do, whether we like it or not. It is a legitimate human concern.

It is a legitimate human concern, but that still does not say that we ought to improve human well-being. That is the part science cannot give us.

Again, do not understand me wrong: I think too that we ought to improve well-being, of all sentient beings. But I cannot derive it from science, and the idea we ought to improve well-being can even be formulated without knowing any science. But science can help us to achieve this.

Sorry I seem so stubborn, but I think that the idea that science can give us values, is a possible dangerous idea. As Gnostikosis said several times: science is a tool. An overvaluing of science can lead us to the idea that understanding our lifes is the only value of our lifes. To see it as the only base for our life is a symptom of a feeling of insecurity, and a diminishing of what also constitutes life: love, aesthetics, and… ethics. Even if science can tell us a lot about how these values arise in our lifes. A neural explanation of why I love somebody, or why I like a painting is interesting, but nothing more on the positive side. On the negative side it may lead us to new mechanisms of manipulation. And if we get happier by this? A brave new world!

GdB

[ Edited: 08 December 2010 07:12 AM by GdB ]
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Posted: 08 December 2010 11:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 214 ]
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Chocotacoi8 - 07 December 2010 11:52 PM

In Cameroon, “when young girls’ breasts begin to develop, hot stones or other hot objects are pressed firmly onto the breasts and moved back and forth, like an iron. Another variation is bandaging breasts with hot towels or fabrics, known as a breast band. This is used in conjunction with hot stones, pounding with a pestle or working the breasts with a spatula. The purpose of these practices is to retard breast growth,” given the belief that “growing breasts will attract the sexual interest of men.” According to custom, “the extremely painful procedure is repeated every day, until it has the desired results.” (from Female Genital Mutilation in Cameroon - pdf document)

It seems to me that moral conclusions like the one I’ve cited would have a far harder time gaining traction within a society if they had to be defended using science. Indeed, as we’ve increasingly relied on the science of medicine to guide our personal health, the result hasn’t been an authoritarian regime, but a rather dramatic increase in life expectancy and better living (see this interactive chart). So, like when it comes to health, I think we are better off with science than any other proposed method of discovery or justification (e.g. religion) when determining our well-being.

So scientifically what is the problem here? The pain? So let’s teach more humane methods to reduce breast size?

Well being for the POV of the men, they feel less temptation to rape and feel more secure their women folk won’t be raped.
Well being for the women, less chance of being raped.

No one else is determining that well-being should be a goal. What I’m saying is that it already is. Does someone have to tell you to care about your friends? Or eat when you’re hungry? Or avoid pain?

Sometimes caring about my friends, eating when I’m hungry or avoiding pain does not lead to the “most” well being.

I think it is important that a person learns self-reliance and my caring about a person can interfere with that. Friends will use my caring for them to manipulate me into taking care of something they should learn how to be responsible for on their own.

I tend to overeat when I’m hungry. If my goal is to lose weight I have to learn to control my desire to eat.

Going to the Dentist is well gee… about the most painful experience I go through.

According to science. Again, look at the science of medicine for a parallel of what I’m talking about.

There is no “According to science”. That’s like saying the best way to hit a nail is according to the hammer. The hammer really has no opinions about the best way to hit a nail. It’s a tool use by an individual to accomplish a goal.

Individual have opinions about well being and determine their goals. A Scientist may have an opinion about what will bring about our well being as a whole and use science to determine the best course of action to reach that goal. I don’t think science cares about the well being of man any more then a hammer cares about hitting a nail. 

Science doesn’t care whether I am fat of skinny, whether I care about people or if I feel pain. You might, I might, then again maybe not.

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Posted: 12 December 2010 03:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 215 ]
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GdB - 08 December 2010 07:06 AM

Science as a human activity is contingent. Just the states of affairs ‘out there’ are not.

So one person can never discover something on his own using science? I’m sorry, but I just can’t agree. Science is a method and can be applied by one person, many people, or conceivably any conscious entity. Discussion, publication, peer review—these things are tools to help eliminate error and expose mistakes. But, they are not the core of science and I think the definitions I presented to you earlier help show that.

I’m afraid we may have to agree to disagree on this point.

GdB - 08 December 2010 07:06 AM

But if your argument is dependent on something people believe to be true, then I will surely not follow you. Just because propositions about heaven and hell seem empirical, they are not.

...

Chocotacoi8 - 07 December 2010 10:52 PM

In fact, one wonders how we can read about heaven in the Qur’an if information about heaven can, in principle, never be shared.

Well, take a wild guess… Because it is no information at all, but just plain fantasy?

My original point was that religious claims (e.g. heaven, hell, God, prayers, etc.) fall within the scope of science because if true they represent how the Universe works and thus could be discoverable in principle using science. In other words, if religious claims were true, science would be in a position to help confirm these facts about the Universe. However, I’m certainly not suggesting they are true.

Your response to this, if I’m piecing it together correctly, seems to be that science can’t say anything about religion because religious claims are false and science could never discover anything about a false claim. I’m curious as to how you know they are false to begin with.

Chocotacoi8 - 07 December 2010 10:52 PM

Try to apply your position on people who had a near death experience. Is it sure that live after our death, that our soul survives death, as many of them say?

Of course not, but only because there is no scientific evidence that a soul exists or that a “near death experience” is anything other than quirky stuff that happens when the brain is deprived of oxygen or suffers from some other trauma. However, if the studies that have been done on the subject had come back with conclusive evidence that a person could view events from a perspective other than from their own body, this would have been a monumental discovery in favor of the religious notion of a soul. Wouldn’t this have been a possible outcome?

I think so, especially if we all actually did have souls. Thus, in principle science can comment on religious claims, it’s just that no religious claims seem to be supported by scientific evidence.

GdB - 08 December 2010 07:06 AM
Chocotacoi8 - 07 December 2010 10:52 PM

Unfortunately, the very nature of event horizons makes it physically impossible for anything to cross them a second time…

Apply your position on well-being. What if we cannot communicate this ‘scientific fact’? Is it part of science?

I think you’re conflating two different senses of the word “science” here. One refers to a certain way of discovering truth about how things work, while the other refers to the accumulated knowledge gathered by that method. So in the second sense, no, Larry’s discoveries will obviously fail to reach the scientific journals back on Earth. But, the knowledge was discovered using the method of science and so is still science in the first sense.

GdB - 08 December 2010 07:06 AM

It is a legitimate human concern, but that still does not say that we ought to improve human well-being. That is the part science cannot give us.

Understand that I’m not saying it can.

GdB - 08 December 2010 07:06 AM

... I think that the idea that science can give us values, is a possible dangerous idea.

(1) Note that this is a non sequitur to my argument.

(2) As I’ve suggested, if paths to greater human well-being exist then I think we should use the best method of discovery we know of in order to find out how to walk those paths. We have already done this with our personal health and the results have been spectacularly good.

GdB - 08 December 2010 07:06 AM

A neural explanation of why I love somebody, or why I like a painting is interesting, but nothing more on the positive side.

What if we discover that girls are happier and live longer and more fulfilled lives when they have the opportunity to experience artwork during their lifetimes? Or that societies tend to be more prosperous when their citizens are given the chance to express themselves using art? Wouldn’t these be discoveries be positive? And wouldn’t we be able to then say, scientifically mind you, that we should create and experience art?

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Posted: 12 December 2010 04:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 216 ]
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Gnostikosis - 08 December 2010 11:39 AM
Chocotacoi8 - 07 December 2010 11:52 PM

In Cameroon, “when young girls’ breasts begin to develop, hot stones or other hot objects are pressed firmly onto the breasts and moved back and forth, like an iron. ...

So scientifically what is the problem here? The pain? So let’s teach more humane methods to reduce breast size?

Well being for the POV of the men, they feel less temptation to rape and feel more secure their women folk won’t be raped.
Well being for the women, less chance of being raped.

The point is that they clearly think this horrific practice increases the well-being of the people within their society. This is a claim that is either true or false because it relates to facts about the world and about the conscious states of human beings.

Thus, the questions that science can answer in principle are (1) whether or not this is the best way to increase the well-being of these girls or if there are actually better ways of doing so and (2) if this is the maximum level of well-being that can be reached for these people. It might be that by sufficiently educating it’s girl children, Cameroon could increase the well-being of its people far more than it ever could by mutilating their flesh. It seems to me that the world is replete with examples of better ways to structure societies that lead to greater increases in the well-being of its citizens without having to resort to excruciating torture. I think this a fact about the world.

Do you disagree?

Gnostikosis - 08 December 2010 11:39 AM

Sometimes caring about my friends, eating when I’m hungry or avoiding pain does not lead to the “most” well being.

Right. It’s about maximizing well-being. There are certainly more “moral” things you could be doing that lead to greater increases in your well-being and the well-being of those you care about apart from satisfying immediate happiness.

Gnostikosis - 08 December 2010 11:39 AM

There is no “According to science”. That’s like saying the best way to hit a nail is according to the hammer. The hammer really has no opinions about the best way to hit a nail. It’s a tool use by an individual to accomplish a goal.

When I say “according to science,” I mean according to the collection of truths about the Universe that have been discovered using science.

Is there a “best” way to hit a nail with a hammer? Is this a fact about the Universe? Is this fact discoverable by science? And finally, does this have anything to do with the opinion of the scientist who seeks to discover this fact using science?

I think: Yes, Yes, Yes, and ultimately No. What do you think?

Gnostikosis - 08 December 2010 11:39 AM

Science doesn’t care whether I am fat of skinny, whether I care about people or if I feel pain. You might, I might, then again maybe not.

True, science is a tool. But, it can tell us that most of us value well-being and in principle what to do in order to achieve more of it. Those who don’t value well-being, as I’ve said, can be safely ignored.

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Posted: 12 December 2010 05:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 217 ]
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Chocotacoi8 - 12 December 2010 03:22 AM

So one person can never discover something on his own using science?

It is a little bit deeper… Where does the language of science come from? Is a language not per definition something we share? Yes, a single person is able to do science, but only because he shares a scientific background with scientists. If he cannot bring back his observations principally, it will never be science (Yes, two different meanings of science). How can a truth that is impossible to know be a part of science?

Chocotacoi8 - 12 December 2010 03:22 AM

I’m afraid we may have to agree to disagree on this point.

That’s fine to me. As long as we both agree that well-being of all beings should be the basis of morality, this discussion is a bit academical.

Chocotacoi8 - 12 December 2010 03:22 AM

Your response to this, if I’m piecing it together correctly, seems to be that science can’t say anything about religion because religious claims are false and science could never discover anything about a false claim.

Well, even if I expressed myself not clear enough, I never meant to say that. The big difference between us seems to be that you say “religious claims fall within the scope of science because if true they represent how the Universe works and thus could be discoverable in principle using science”. I deny the bold phrase.

Chocotacoi8 - 12 December 2010 03:22 AM

Of course not, but only because there is no scientific evidence that a soul exists or that a “near death experience” is anything other than quirky stuff that happens when the brain is deprived of oxygen or suffers from some other trauma.

There is also no scientific evidence that the brain deprived of oxygen does not actually see heaven (or hell). Still, we do not think it does, because it does not fit in the rest of established science. And I do not understand why you use the word ‘no evidence’ here without hesitation.

Chocotacoi8 - 12 December 2010 03:22 AM

As I’ve suggested, if paths to greater human well-being exist then I think we should use the best method of discovery we know of in order to find out how to walk those paths. We have already done this with our personal health and the results have been spectacularly good.

Bold by me. Did we agree to disagree all the time? wink

Chocotacoi8 - 12 December 2010 03:22 AM

And wouldn’t we be able to then say, scientifically mind you, that we should create and experience art?

No. “It is open to falsification by Allah… A lifetime of well-being, an eternity in hell… “. No, I do not think we can can describe the conditions of possible falsification, so, no, it is an unscientific and at the same time moral completely correct idea.

GdB

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Posted: 14 December 2010 11:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 218 ]
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GdB - 12 December 2010 05:46 AM

It is a little bit deeper… Where does the language of science come from? Is a language not per definition something we share? Yes, a single person is able to do science, but only because he shares a scientific background with scientists. If he cannot bring back his observations principally, it will never be science (Yes, two different meanings of science). How can a truth that is impossible to know be a part of science?

Ok, so at least we agree on that point. A single person can do science, even though it might not end up part of science.

But how would you determine that a truth is “impossible” to know? Just because something isn’t possible to discover today, doesn’t mean it will always be impossible. Also, it seems to me that just because a claim is unscientific doesn’t mean that the basis of the claim (i.e. the underlying facts about the Universe that would have to exist in order for the claim to be true) are forever closed to scientific inquiry. The Lock Ness Monster might elude science today (and claims about it are often unscientific), but if someone hit poor Nessie with their boat, scientists from several different major fields would descend on her like vultures.

Chocotacoi8 - 12 December 2010 03:22 AM

As long as we both agree that well-being of all beings should be the basis of morality, this discussion is a bit academical.

Yea, you’re right, the discussion is academical. Maybe more than “a bit” even… grin

GdB - 12 December 2010 05:46 AM
Chocotacoi8 - 12 December 2010 03:22 AM

Of course not, but only because there is no scientific evidence that a soul exists or that a “near death experience” is anything other than quirky stuff that happens when the brain is deprived of oxygen or suffers from some other trauma.

...I do not understand why you use the word ‘no evidence’ here without hesitation.

I said “no scientific evidence” exists supporting the hypothesis of the existence of souls. If you have some I’ll gladly soften the statement.

GdB - 12 December 2010 05:46 AM
Chocotacoi8 - 12 December 2010 03:22 AM

And wouldn’t we be able to then say, scientifically mind you, that we should create and experience art?

No. “It is open to falsification by Allah… A lifetime of well-being, an eternity in hell… “. No, I do not think we can can describe the conditions of possible falsification, so, no, it is an unscientific and at the same time moral completely correct idea.

(1) The statement would be falsified if girls were shown to be demonstrably worse off when exposed to art during their lifetimes. This might manifest itself in elevated suicide rates, for instance.

(2) What scientific statement isn’t open to falsification by Allah or some other deity?

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Posted: 28 December 2010 12:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 219 ]
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the PC apeman - 29 November 2010 04:06 PM

Consider emotivism, or non-cognitivism in general.

Sorry to disappear after thanksgiving - things got difficult in the physical world, suddenly.

Okay, let’s consider it - but maybe in a different thread? Since I’m unsure how it is directly relevant to Sam Harris’ hypotheses about using science to answer moral questions.

But generally: non-cognitivism makes moral discussions and arguments difficult if not impossible to explain, as well as moral improvement. In its most typical form, cultural relativism, it makes it difficult if not impossible to explain how members of one culture can have any good reason to consider the acts of another culture to be moral or immoral.

However, since moral cognitivism seems offensively non-physical (or non-natural, or whatever word we’re using), non-cognitivsm remains popular. I *think* Harris is attempting to have a physicalist’s version of moral cognitivism. What do you think?

Chris Kirk

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Posted: 28 December 2010 02:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 220 ]
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inthegobi - 28 December 2010 12:35 PM
the PC apeman - 29 November 2010 04:06 PM

Consider emotivism, or non-cognitivism in general.

...

Okay, let’s consider it - but maybe in a different thread? Since I’m unsure how it is directly relevant to Sam Harris’ hypotheses about using science to answer moral questions.

...

However, since moral cognitivism seems offensively non-physical (or non-natural, or whatever word we’re using), non-cognitivsm remains popular. I *think* Harris is attempting to have a physicalist’s version of moral cognitivism. What do you think?

Hello, Chris.
My sense, at the time I made that post in response to a question posed by Gnostikosis, was the thread had drifted away from Sam Harris’ work toward a general discussion of ethics.  If that was not the case then I apologize to all for the derail.  The Moral Landscape is now waiting on my shelf so perhaps someday I’ll be in a better position to answer questions about it.  Based on Mr. Harris’ appearances touting the book I’d say you may be right.  And my bias going into the book is he will not convincingly pull that off.

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