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Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions
Posted: 11 November 2010 07:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 61 ]
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Chocotacoi8 - 11 November 2010 03:24 AM
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.

We are not designed to increase our well-being, but to increase our chances of survival and reproduction. The Saudis who flew into the buildings on 9/11 felt that their chances of survival were being jeopardized by Americans “spreading democracy” in their lands, and reacted accordingly. From their point of view (and those of millions of other Arabs) their action would show up as a “hill” on Harris’s “ethicometer,” from the perspective of an American it would read as a “valley.” And now what do you do?

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Posted: 11 November 2010 08:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 62 ]
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George - 11 November 2010 07:57 AM

... From their point of view (and those of millions of other Arabs) their action would show up as a “hill” on Harris’s “ethicometer,” from the perspective of an American it would read as a “valley.” And now what do you do?

You look at why they made their decision and what the measurable effect on well-being actually was.

First of all, the terrorists had a view of the universe that was, in all likelihood, very incorrect. So their judgment on how the consequences of their actions would play out in that universe was seriously compromised. Right now, they are almost certainly not experiencing eternal bliss in the company of however many virgins they may have been promised. Nor have they secured a spot for their friends or family in their non-existent heaven. Nor have they improved the temporal lives of Muslims or Arabs or anyone else. So while they may have thought they were moving up the “hill” on Harris’s ethicometer, in fact, they were moving down it.

Furthermore, even if they hadn’t been following a faulty worldview, you can look at the amount of personal and human suffering they caused (which can be scientifically observed) and understand from that perspective that they weren’t actually moving down a moral “hill”, they were plummeting off a moral cliff. Whose life was made better on or after 9/11 because of their actions? The effect of those actions can be observed in the physical reality of today’s world including in the brain states of the families of those who died in the attacks and of those who died (on both sides or as collateral damage) during the subsequent wars that were fought because of the attacks.

So while they thought their actions would take them “uphill,” it can be in principle (and I think in this case, in practice) readily be observed using the tools of science that they, along with the rest of us, moved “downhill.” They simply got it wrong.

Finally, if, against everything we think we know about the world and the universe, they actually were right about Allah’s existence and if everything written in the Qur’an was accurate, then their actions on 9/11 may have been moral after all. I mean, if Allah is real and he commanded them to do it or whatever, then killing a bunch of infidels (probably possessed by the devil anyway) to secure spots in everlasting bliss for many of Allah’s chosen people might be a good thing to do, even in the eyes of science which could then embark on the study of Allah as a force of nature in the universe. Fortunately, this is absolutely absurd and there’s almost no chance it’s true. smile

[ Edited: 11 November 2010 09:07 AM by Chocotacoi8 ]
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Posted: 11 November 2010 09:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 63 ]
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As a general statement, it’s not about what one would like to be doing on the moral landscape or what direction one thinks one is taking us. It’s what direction they are actually moving and taking us. And that can only be discovered using the tools of science because they are facts that exist whether we are aware of them or not.

At least, I think that’s what Harris is trying to say.

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Posted: 11 November 2010 09:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 64 ]
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Chocotacoi8 - 11 November 2010 08:57 AM

So while they may have thought they were moving up the “hill” on Harris’s ethicometer, in fact, they were moving down it.

Do you think then, they should follow the correct worldview recipe and welcome the Americans in their lands just like the Aztecs did when they opened their arms to Cortez in the North or the Incas to Pizarro the South?

You are right to say that morals are about the “direction they are actually moving and taking us.” But once again, those directions were designed to navigate us towards survival and reproduction, not well-being. From their point of view, the Arabs are more than justified to defend their lands.

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Posted: 11 November 2010 12:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 65 ]
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George - 11 November 2010 09:30 AM

You are right to say that morals are about the “direction they are actually moving and taking us.”

Hmm…I think there’s been some pronoun confusion. Let me try and clarify my last post and then answer yours.

As a general statement, it’s not about what a person would like to be doing on the moral landscape or what direction that person thinks (s)he is taking other conscious creatures. It’s what direction that person is actually moving across the landscape as a consequence of his or her behaviors and, insofar as that person’s behaviors affect us, where we are moving along the continuum of well-being as a result of that person’s behaviors. These are things that can only be discovered using the tools of science because they are facts that exist whether we are aware of them or not.

It seems pretty evident that evolution has endowed us with certain moral intuitions which may be biased towards survival and reproduction. But, if well-being is the established goal then we no longer need to fall victim to our misleading intuitions because behaviors are judged on the many continua (i.e. the peaks and valleys) of well-being and not with respect to the evolutionary goal of survival and reproduction.

As an analogy, evolution has also endowed us with certain dietary intuitions that may, as you devour your third piece of chocolate cake, unintentionally have caused you to lapse into a sugar-induced coma. But, just because we have these intuitions doesn’t mean that science cannot tell us certain eating behaviors or ways of living are unhealthy (that is, move us further down a “hill” on the “health landscape”). That is because we decided the goal should be health, not satisfying the evolutionary goal of maximum sugar intake.

So, just because we have certain moral intuitions doesn’t mean they are correct with respect to maximizing well-being.

George - 11 November 2010 09:30 AM

Do you think then, they should follow the correct worldview recipe and welcome the Americans in their lands just like the Aztecs did when they opened their arms to Cortez in the North or the Incas to Pizarro the South?

Maybe, maybe not. And there may be many different routes of behavior that lead us to equivalent states of well-being. It’s our position on the moral landscape before and after such events that would determine the morality of these behaviors and a more sophisticated science could potentially help us answer this question.

Regardless, it doesn’t seem to justify a different conclusion about 9/11. It was an immoral act because no one was or is better off as a result of it, so those people ought not to have done it. If the terrorist acts can be seen in a wider context of American imperialism or something like that, then we could better understand why it took place and maybe even see it as a terrible consequence of some other immoral action…but it seems that as a direct result of 9/11 we all (as humans) were and probably still are demonstrably worse off. Therefore, it was immoral.

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Posted: 11 November 2010 01:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 66 ]
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Sorry, Chocotacoi8, not in the mood now. I’ll respond at some other time…

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Posted: 11 November 2010 02:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 67 ]
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Chocotacoi8 - 11 November 2010 12:39 PM

Regardless, it doesn’t seem to justify a different conclusion about 9/11. It was an immoral act because no one was or is better off as a result of it, so those people ought not to have done it. If the terrorist acts can be seen in a wider context of American imperialism or something like that, then we could better understand why it took place and maybe even see it as a terrible consequence of some other immoral action…but it seems that as a direct result of 9/11 we all (as humans) were and probably still are demonstrably worse off. Therefore, it was immoral.

Morals is a sense or code of proper behavior. Proper behavior depends on the goals you are trying to achieve.

If I want to take over the world I’m going to have a different sense of morals from someone who wants to convert the world into one big happy commune.

I don’t doubt the people who hijacked the planes on 9/11 felt their actions was very moral. They set out to achieve something and that goal dictated the proper behavior to accomplish that goal.

Science would be great to say lay out the most efficient means to accomplish a particular goal. Still individually we choose what that goal is.

If one wanted to get rid of religion, science could probably come up with the behavior to accomplish that. One could adopt the morals or proper behavior to accomplish that.

We culturally or as a result of evolutionary survival inherent certain goals. Morals is the behavior required to achieve those goals.

If my goals happen to be different then yours, there is no reason to think my morals would or should be the same as yours.

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Posted: 11 November 2010 05:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 68 ]
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George - 11 November 2010 01:52 PM

Sorry, Chocotacoi8, not in the mood now. I’ll respond at some other time…

I mentioned this in another thread, perhaps you did not see it.
You have exceptional intellect and critical thinking skills and you have my deepest respect. But we cannot all be right all the time.
As they say in sports, forget the last play and concentrate on the next… cheese
If your mood has a different cause, then I hope for a speedy resolution, so that we all can enjoy your valuable input.

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Posted: 11 November 2010 10:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 69 ]
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Write4U - 11 November 2010 05:04 PM
George - 11 November 2010 01:52 PM

Sorry, Chocotacoi8, not in the mood now. I’ll respond at some other time…

I mentioned this in another thread, perhaps you did not see it.
You have exceptional intellect and critical thinking skills and you have my deepest respect. But we cannot all be right all the time.
As they say in sports, forget the last play and concentrate on the next… cheese
If your mood has a different cause, then I hope for a speedy resolution, so that we all can enjoy your valuable input.

I second! There’s a reason why I come to this forum when I’m struggling to make sense of things. The level of discourse is always refreshingly insightful and enlightening. It’s one of the best places I know to find out what I didn’t think of!

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Posted: 12 November 2010 03:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 70 ]
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Gnostikosis - 11 November 2010 02:13 PM

If I want to take over the world I’m going to have a different sense of morals from someone who wants to convert the world into one big happy commune.

If you want to take over the world do you also have a different sense of physics? What about a different sense of health?

My point is that if we’re talking about morality then we’re already having a conversation about well-being. In essence, we have already agreed on the goal. (See my previous post)

Gnostikosis - 11 November 2010 02:13 PM

Still individually we choose what that goal is.

People are free to redefine morality or physics or health or biology etc. however they wish. But that doesn’t mean we are forced to take them seriously. And we don’t it seems, unless we’re talking about morality.

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Posted: 12 November 2010 02:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 71 ]
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Chocotacoi8 - 12 November 2010 03:21 AM

If you want to take over the world do you also have a different sense of physics? What about a different sense of health?

I’m not sure how this is relevant. Morality is a code of acceptable behavior. Physics doesn’t depend on my sense of it

My point is that if we’re talking about morality then we’re already having a conversation about well-being. In essence, we have already agreed on the goal. (See my previous post)

Well-being is not necessarily a part of person’s individual morality.

People are free to redefine morality or physics or health or biology etc. however they wish. But that doesn’t mean we are forced to take them seriously. And we don’t it seems, unless we’re talking about morality.

You are trying to define moral as you think it should be, however we already have a definition for it. You can try to re-define it and who knows maybe it will get accepted, however right now when I talk about morals it’s in reference to how it’s currently defined.

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Posted: 13 November 2010 02:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 72 ]
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Gnostikosis - 12 November 2010 02:13 PM

I’m not sure how this is relevant. Morality is a code of acceptable behavior. Physics doesn’t depend on my sense of it

Natural processes don’t depend on our understanding of them, but physics, the study of them, certainly does depend on our sense of the term. Just ask a creationist.

Gnostikosis - 12 November 2010 02:13 PM

Well-being is not necessarily a part of person’s individual morality.

Think about what this would mean. What would a system of behaviors that didn’t have well-being at its core look like? It would have to be a system where each behavior advanced could in no perceivable way benefit any person, ever. A person following this code of conduct would be considered “immoral” if their actions caused anyone, including him or herself, to be better off at any point in either the present or the future.

Is this really what any sane person means when talking about morality? In fact, it seems to be the exact inversion of what we mean when we talk about “good” and “bad” acts.

I highly doubt any society could even function under this regime. I’m not saying there aren’t individuals who try to operate in this manner, there most certainly are. They’re called psychopaths and, in the US at least, we spend billions of our hard-earned tax dollars keeping them as far away as possible from the rest of us.

Gnostikosis - 12 November 2010 02:13 PM

You are trying to define moral as you think it should be ...

In one sense “yes,” in another “no.”

On the one hand I think that “well-being” already exists in any sane and coherent person’s definition of morality, whether they realize it or not.

On the other, I’m saying that science should be incorporated into morality so that our moral “calculations” are accurate, much like we’ve done with physics. In a way, that’s like a different definition I guess. But only because I want things to be more accurate. There’s nothing to say we should value accuracy, though it seems most of us do when it comes to other things.

[ Edited: 13 November 2010 02:13 AM by Chocotacoi8 ]
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Posted: 13 November 2010 07:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 73 ]
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Ok, well if science were to come up with a moral code what would you think it’s “Ten Commandments” might be?

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Posted: 13 November 2010 08:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 74 ]
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Chocotacoi8 - 11 November 2010 04:53 AM

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

I don’t think the majority defines morality as such. Alas. At most the every minority defines morally right as that what maximises the people who they identify with. See the muslim hate with some people in this forum, the hate of the muslims to westerners and women, of christian fundamentalists to ‘brights’ etc etc. If you put all these minorities together you probably get a majority…

Chocotacoi8 - 11 November 2010 04:53 AM

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?

Yes, it is. But science does not discover the fact that we ought to.

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Posted: 13 November 2010 08:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 75 ]
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George - 11 November 2010 07:57 AM

We are not designed to increase our well-being, but to increase our chances of survival and reproduction.

You are switching perspective in this remark. The way ‘nature implemented increased chances survival and reproduction’ is by ‘giving us feelings of well-being’: you switch from the external function to the internal view of ‘how-it-feels-to-be-successful’.

The external meaning of sex is to reproduce. The internal is enjoying and loving. But as I know you from this forum you always reduce the internal to the external. Therefore, even if morality has the function of reproductive success, you deny the internal, moral arguments. But by doing that, how can morality then exist, and help us in survival and reproduction?

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