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Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions
Posted: 09 November 2010 12:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 46 ]
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So basically science can say: “It is what it is” concerning morals.
And that’s great! Because that fits my scientific-naturalist view perfectly.
And anyways science is used plenty enough by politicians and scientists and others to dictate what morality is. It’s used as much as religious mysticism or other illogical dogmas. It’s used rightly, and wrongly.

[ Edited: 09 November 2010 12:44 PM by VYAZMA ]
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Posted: 09 November 2010 12:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 47 ]
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There are people who do science, and there are people or entities who administer science. The administrators are the ones who help create morals.

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Posted: 09 November 2010 04:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 48 ]
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I choose my own morals. However if Science can come up with a way to keep everyone else in line, I’m fine with that.

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Posted: 09 November 2010 10:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 49 ]
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VYAZMA - 09 November 2010 12:39 PM

Science knows that ones mans sufferings creates another’s harmony.

But I think what Harris is saying is that this is demonstrably false. Living your life in abject poverty, physically tortured, amidst death and violence has physical consequences in the brain that can be measured and compared to someone who lives their life free of disease, pain and suffering. One is clearly better than the other, a fact which can now be illuminated through science (e.g. neurology, psychology, etc.)*. And even if a tremendous amount of suffering could lead to a life as fulfilled as one where no suffering existed, you could find those two paths using science.

So, in the same way that science can tell you it’s healthy to eat vegetables and not poison, you can say that it is immoral to torture, rape and pillage because of the real consequences those actions have in the world and in the brain states of other people.

It’s entirely possible that someone’s definition of “healthy” might include dying at a premature age…but we don’t need to take that person seriously. Why is it ok to ignore that definition of “healthy” and it’s not ok to ignore certain definitions of morality?

*Or could be, in principle.

[ Edited: 09 November 2010 11:03 PM by Chocotacoi8 ]
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Posted: 10 November 2010 09:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 50 ]
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Chocotacoi8 - 09 November 2010 10:57 PM
VYAZMA - 09 November 2010 12:39 PM

Science knows that ones mans sufferings creates another’s harmony.

But I think what Harris is saying is that this is demonstrably false. Living your life in abject poverty, physically tortured, amidst death and violence has physical consequences in the brain that can be measured and compared to someone who lives their life free of disease, pain and suffering. One is clearly better than the other, a fact which can now be illuminated through science (e.g. neurology, psychology, etc.)*. And even if a tremendous amount of suffering could lead to a life as fulfilled as one where no suffering existed, you could find those two paths using science.

So, in the same way that science can tell you it’s healthy to eat vegetables and not poison, you can say that it is immoral to torture, rape and pillage because of the real consequences those actions have in the world and in the brain states of other people.

It’s entirely possible that someone’s definition of “healthy” might include dying at a premature age…but we don’t need to take that person seriously. Why is it ok to ignore that definition of “healthy” and it’s not ok to ignore certain definitions of morality?

*Or could be, in principle.

How in the world could that be demonstrably false? It is clearly evident!
What are morals anyways? They wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the backdrop of constant suffering, poverty, greed etc..whereby we measure the application of said morals against.
In other words..we wouldn’t be discussing morals in any context if it weren’t for the facts of variation amongst people’s well-being and suffering.
Let’s cut to the quick here. The general idea here in this discussion is to discuss whether science can pave a way to zero suffering.
I think any rational person should know the answer to this. It is impossible. Furthermore science is not in the business of satisfying the subjective concepts of individual organisms and their advanced philosophical notions of what is right and wrong.
The title of this thread is: “Science can answer Moral questions.” What questions specifically?

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Posted: 10 November 2010 11:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 51 ]
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VYAZMA - 10 November 2010 09:51 AM

How in the world could that be demonstrably false? It is clearly evident!

So if there were only two people living on Earth, they couldn’t both be happy?

Regardless, even if a certain amount of suffering has to exist in order for the rest of us to be happy, then science could still tell us right and wrong ways to maximize well-being.

VYAZMA - 10 November 2010 09:51 AM

The general idea here in this discussion is to discuss whether science can pave a way to zero suffering.

That seems unreasonably strict to me. I mean, is that our standard for anything else in science? Like health, for instance? Do we really think that the science of medicine will lead us to all live 100% perfectly healthy lives (whatever that even means)? Or that the science of physics will lead us to understand everything about the universe perfectly? If we could somehow know in advance that in the end we would only ever be able to know 98% of everything about the universe, would we be obligated to stop conducting physics experiments?

(Do we hold religious moral frameworks to that standard?)

VYAZMA - 10 November 2010 09:51 AM

Furthermore science is not in the business of satisfying the subjective concepts of individual organisms and their advanced philosophical notions of what is right and wrong.

These “subjective concepts” and “philisophical notions” ultimately don’t matter. Right and wrong questions of how to maximize human well-being exist independent of our conclusions on the subject.

If I was an omniscient observer watching humanity at this moment, I might tell you that humans are at XYZ level of well-being and we could do the following to decrease that level (i.e. bad or immoral actions):

  A. Blow up our planet
  B. Engineer and release an incurable, highly contagious disease that slowly and painfully causes everyone’s internal organs to rupture 72 hours after exposure.
  C. ...

OR in order to increase our well-being (i.e. good or moral actions) we could:

  A. Strive to help each other when possible
  B. Stop killing people in the name of religion
  C. ...

This is absurdly simplified, but I think it illuminates my point that we can discover ways to maximize our well-being in the same way we can discover general relativity or the fact that drinking poison is unhealthy.

VYAZMA - 10 November 2010 09:51 AM

The title of this thread is: “Science can answer Moral questions.” What questions specifically?

In principle,
  - Is slavery good or bad?
  - Is rape good or bad?
  - Is female circumcision good or bad?
  - Is bringing soup to your neighbor when he’s feeling sick good or bad?
  - ....

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Posted: 10 November 2010 11:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 52 ]
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There are more than 2 people living on Earth.
You are not viewing the inhabitants of this planet from afar as a third party.
Strive to help each other when possible. Seriously?
Did you read my post where I said science contributes to the creation of morals?
Now ask yourself why it isn’t contributing more. It’s not just religion.
Science is administered.

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Posted: 10 November 2010 12:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 53 ]
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VYAZMA - 10 November 2010 11:58 AM

There are more than 2 people living on Earth.

Right. Maybe next time Harris can tell us how we should approach objectively our falling in love. I am sure every woman has her “hills and valleys” and if one only keeps analyzing these enough, I am sure after eighty years or so of intense research one should be able to find a suitable wife to share a life with.

This whole thing reminds me of Kirk asking Spock—recorded in a message to be read after his death—to temper logic with intuition, and in case he needed help with the latter to consult with McCoy. I am beginning to feel that Harris’s passion with reason is becoming to border on fanaticism and that he probably needs to “consult with McCoy.”

[ Edited: 10 November 2010 12:47 PM by George ]
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Posted: 10 November 2010 12:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 54 ]
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Sam Harris will be speaking in my neighborhood tonight. I plan to go to the lecture, I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say.

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Posted: 10 November 2010 12:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 55 ]
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Yes George. Or perhaps the best way science can lay down morals everyone can follow is to implant chips in our heads. Or maybe genetically engineer a race of people who all get along fine.
I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t even work.

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Posted: 10 November 2010 11:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 56 ]
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VYAZMA - 10 November 2010 11:58 AM

There are more than 2 people living on Earth.
You are not viewing the inhabitants of this planet from afar as a third party.
Strive to help each other when possible. Seriously?

VYAZMA, imagine I was trying to explain gravity to you and I started by explaining why an apple falls from a tree. Your response above could be translated as follows, “Well there are more than just apples in the Universe you know.” The implication from you being that my flimsy theory about gravity couldn’t possibly work since the universe contains more than apples. The point is to understand what is going on at simple level first, then apply those principles to more complex scenarios. I’m not actually trying to represent reality at this moment.

They are thought experiments, the kinds of which we use to understand complex things in many different subjects. Maybe you could address the points I make in them, rather than criticize my examples for not precisely representing the current state of the universe. They aren’t supposed to.

There are obviously more than 2 people living on Earth. But I don’t see why that changes anything but the “amount” of moral “calculus” we would have to perform.

And my examples of moral and immoral actions, were just that…examples. They may or may not be correct, but I don’t see why a sophisticated and well developed science of morality couldn’t inform us of whether or not they increased well-being.

VYAZMA - 10 November 2010 11:58 AM

Did you read my post where I said science contributes to the creation of morals?

I did and I don’t necessarily disagree with it. You’re talking about what the situation is right now as you see it and I’m talking about what Science could, in principle, do.

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Posted: 11 November 2010 03:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 57 ]
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Chocotacoi8 - 10 November 2010 11:28 PM

And my examples of moral and immoral actions, were just that…examples. They may or may not be correct, but I don’t see why a sophisticated and well developed science of morality couldn’t inform us of whether or not they increased well-being.

One cannot cross the is-ought border. Science can tell us how to reach certain goals, but it cannot tell what are the right goals.

Of course I agree with the goal to strive for the greatest good for all beings, but not everybody agrees. See the extreme difference between the rich and the poor. Obviously the rich and mighty do not strive for it. Would science change that, based on facts? It at most can tell ‘if we want to strive for the greatest good for all beings, then you should….’. Of course we are also far away from such propositions, even if they were possible. The discussion would start with questions like ‘what is the greatest good?’, ‘all beings, not just humans?’, ‘what about the unborn?’ etc. Are these scientific questions?

GdB

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Posted: 11 November 2010 03:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 58 ]
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George - 10 November 2010 12:26 PM

Right. Maybe next time Harris can tell us how we should approach objectively our falling in love. I am sure every woman has her “hills and valleys” and if one only keeps analyzing these enough, I am sure after eighty years or so of intense research one should be able to find a suitable wife to share a life with.

Your point is well taken. But, since I don’t see anything about humans that exists outside of the physical universe or outside of nature, I don’t see any reason to assume that science couldn’t one day understand our conscious experiences, even better than we understand them. The human mind exists because of interactions in the brain. Consciousness is a product of physical and chemical reactions in our heads. Why wouldn’t science be able to explain this physical process one day?

Right now, about all science can tell is that we are probably better off (i.e. will increase our well-being) marrying a person rather than, say…a guppy. But, maybe in the future science could tell us a bit more about what makes two people compatible and happy in the long-run.

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Posted: 11 November 2010 04:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 59 ]
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IMO the universe works in a completely neutral moral fashion. Things are created, things are destroyed.
This is why science also must be neutral (objective) in its gathering of data and interpretation. But statiscical evidence of natural environmental functions allows man to form theories on which a healthy and prosperous society in harmony with the natural environment can be founded.
I believe that one of those morals, based on evidence of natural function, is the recognition that a reciprocal symbiotic relationship to the environment is beneficial to growth and variety of our natural environment, including humans. In opposition to this is the natural (impartial) law of predatory survival (something must die for something else to live).
If these choices are presented as two fundamental attitudes of humans toward each other and to the environment, we can formulate morals that reflect the better of the choices.

[ Edited: 11 November 2010 04:14 AM by Write4U ]
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Posted: 11 November 2010 04:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 60 ]
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GdB - 11 November 2010 03:04 AM

One cannot cross the is-ought border. Science can tell us how to reach certain goals, but it cannot tell what are the right goals.

Of course I agree with the goal to strive for the greatest good for all beings, but not everybody agrees.

This is where I struggle the most with Harris’s argument, but I also think that it may be less of a problem than we think (or at least he does and I can see the logic).

(1) What if the vast majority of humanity already picked maximizing well-being as the goal and called it “morality?”

It seems to me that all we need to do in order to establish this as being true is to answer “yes” to the question, “Would a world in which everyone suffered the maximum amount of pain and suffering they possibly could be ‘bad?’” Major religions call this “hell.” Religions say we should avoid this and do what God says because we’ll get into heaven. And we should also try and get as many other people into heaven as we can too. Isn’t that the same thing as maximizing well-being?

Furthermore, think about how you would use the word “ought” in a sentence. For example, “We ought to treat others with kindness.” We “ought” to do something because we will be better off, right? Isn’t this the same thing as maximizing well-being?

If the Christian God really does exist and the Bible really does represent his divine word, it seems that maximizing well-being is exactly what Christians are trying to do.

What if we, as a species, aren’t disagreeing with each other over what morality is or should be, but rather the actual state of the universe and therefore the behaviors required to achieve a goal we’ve already agreed on?

(2) Even if there is a person or group of people out there who insist on redefining morality in such a way as to remove well-being completely from the equation, it seems like we should be able to ignore these people, just like we do when it comes to other things. We ignore people who want to talk about their own definition of physics that doesn’t include valuing evidence. Why not ignore people who don’t want to include well-being in their definition of morality? These people would simply be wrong about how to use the term morality, just as creationists are wrong about how they use the terms “science” or “evidence.”

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