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Can Science Shape Human Values? And Should It? NPR Science Friday
Posted: 30 November 2010 07:05 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I am reading Sam Harris’s book, “The Moral Landscape” and noticed this NPR story on the Ashland Humanist Group’s forum. It was an interesting discussion but way too short.

Can Science Shape Human Values? And Should It? NPR Science Friday, Nov 5, 2010
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=131099083&ft=1&f=5

Ira Flatow talks with scientists and philosophers about the origins of human values, and the influence of modern scientific thought on human values. Even if science can shape human morals, should it? Or does science bring its own set of preconceptions and prejudices to moral questions?

Panel:
Lawrence Krauss
foundation professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics Department
director, Origins Project
Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona

Simon Blackburn
research professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy
University of Cambridge
Cambridge, England

Sam Harris
Author, “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values” (Free Press, 2010)
Author, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” (W.W. Norton, 2005)
co-founder and CEO, Project Reason

Steven Pinker
Johnstone Family professor, department of psychology
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Posted: 30 November 2010 03:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Even if science can shape human morals, should it?

Dr Krauss addressed this rather early on:

And I mean, this argument that somehow this is hypothetical, that science might affect morality, is in some sense ludicrous. It already has.

I dig it.

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Posted: 02 December 2010 05:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I recently had the pleasure of attending “The Great Debate: Can Science Tell Us Right from Wrong?” at ASU and listening to Harris, Krauss, Churchland, Singer, Blackburn, and Pinker. It was rather an engaging event with several different humanist perspectives on morals and science. There seemed to be two main positions:

1) There is no real difference between facts and values. They are one and the same: so science is the only way to tell right from wrong (Harris very strongly holds this position).

2) While science is indispensable in distinguishing right from wrong, it is not possible to distinguish right from wrong with only science (Churchland and Blackburn both hold this position).

Wrong was generally defined as that which causes suffering of a sentient being; and good defined as the antithesis of wrong.

Of course I have my own stance on the matter, as each person does. However, I would like to define some terms before articulating my position.
“Good” is defined as that which is morally excellent, just, and beneficial.
“Evil” is defined as that which is morally corrupt, unjust, and negative.
“Moral” is defined as that which pertains to right conduct.
“Values” are defined as the standards which dictate one’s actions.
“Facts” are defined as those things which are objectively true or real.
“Science” is defined as man’s observation of the physical world, based on testable, observable, repeatable events.

I will be frank: I do not agree with Sam Harris’ thesis that facts and values are the same, so I also will disagree with his conclusion that science is the only way to tell right from wrong.  He states that science can handle facts, which I really have no problem with. But lumping “facts” and “values” into the same category is like putting real numbers and imaginary numbers into the same category.  Just as imaginary numbers are contingent upon real numbers, values are contingent upon facts: but they are not one and the same. Since science can handle facts, and only facts, it cannot distinguish right from wrong. There must be a source outside of science for ultimately determining right from wrong. What then, decides right from wrong? One’s conscience? Social mores? God? The “greater good” (which inevitably leads to mob rule)?

Something that humanists struggle with is explaining the presence of morals at all in our society. How do we even have “right conduct” in the first place? Where did the idea that one should not sleep with another man’s wife, or that one should not arbitrarily kill another human being, come from? Where did man get his “conscience”? If evolution (which, by the definition of science above, is just as much faith and no more science than belief in an omnipotent God: for man has never observed macroevolution in progress, nor did he observe the beginning of the universe) and natural selection allow only those changes which are beneficial to the propagation of the superior species, then how could man have evolved a conscience or a moral standard? Moral standards only get in the way of propagating one’s genes and preventing weaker specimens from propagating their own. Animals have no compunctions about killing their own species or mating with whichever member of their species is most convenient. But in man’s society, murder is not acceptable; nor is having sexual activity with just anyone at any time. Why? Where did man get his conscience? It does not help, but rather hinders evolution’s cause.

Because science deals in facts and observations only, it cannot function within the parameters of morals and ethics only: let alone SET the parameters for morals and ethics.  You can’t use a backhoe to complete every stage of building a house—it’s awfully hard on the plumbing.

As a bonus: though I have not studied this subject in any great detail, I would like to address Harris’(?) claim that “there is no moment of conception.” He stated as much at the debate, and I personally was blindsided by that statement. It is logically invalid. The “moment of conception” would be the moment when the male’s sperm met the female’s egg, would it not? Yes, there is a process of events that necessarily must happen for the event of conception to occur; but the moment of conception is one, single, very rapid event.  Saying there is no “moment of conception” is akin to saying that there is no “moment of a car wreck” on a freeway, but rather that the car wreck was a process that began when each car left its driveway. Or like saying that there is no “moment of capture” in photography, but that taking a photograph is a process that begins with taking the camera off the shelf. If you would like to get into the details and mechanics of fertilization and its process, here is a link to follow (interestingly enough, this webpage begins with that statement that fertilization is a process and not an event):

http://www.vivo.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/reprod/fert/fert.html

[ Edited: 02 December 2010 09:25 PM by ThatGuy ]
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Posted: 02 December 2010 05:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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TromboneAndrew - 30 November 2010 03:06 PM

Even if science can shape human morals, should it?

Dr Krauss addressed this rather early on:

And I mean, this argument that somehow this is hypothetical, that science might affect morality, is in some sense ludicrous. It already has.

I dig it.

Science may in some cases AFFECT morality (once it became known that smoking was unhealthful, smoking became morally frowned upon), but it does not and cannot EFFECT morality.

[ Edited: 02 December 2010 05:23 PM by ThatGuy ]
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Posted: 03 December 2010 08:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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ThatGuy - 02 December 2010 05:05 PM

Something that humanists struggle with is explaining the presence of morals at all in our society. How do we even have “right conduct” in the first place? Where did the idea that one should not sleep with another man’s wife, or that one should not arbitrarily kill another human being, come from?

Actually we don’t struggle with it all.  It’s perfectly obvious where moral values come from (if you’re not blinded by religious teachings).  They are part of our evolution as a species.  You seem to have a pretty strange idea of evolution, ThatGuy.  Sure solitary animals don’t need morality, but when we humans began living in groups, we found that we had to have it to live together.  Society simply could not exist if it were acceptable to just kill one another for no reason.  In that sense, it is not at all “arbitrary” to think that killing others is wrong.

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Posted: 03 December 2010 09:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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advocatus - 03 December 2010 08:14 AM

Sure solitary animals don’t need morality, but when we humans began living in groups, we found that we had to have it to live together.

Careful here, advocatus! We didn’t necessarily had to have it, but those who did have it were better adopted to the environment of living in group and passed on their genes to the next generation. As more and more people acquired this adaptive trait, larger groups, such as cities and eventually countries, were able to form. Living in a group and the adequate sense of morality which allowed this to happen must have coevolved simultaneously.

Richard Wrangham in Catching Fire suspect that cooking (and the discovery of fire) had a lot to with it. Once we started to gather around a hearth, the intensity of sharing a confined area with other individuals had greatly increased.

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Posted: 03 December 2010 09:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I would contend that there are many species of animals, who live in large “social groups,” who have not developed morality in any sense similar to the morality that man has. Social mores and morality are a detriment to the “survival of the fittest.” Therefore, they should not have developed, or should have been killed in the first stages of infancy as non-beneficial.

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Posted: 03 December 2010 11:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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advocatus - 03 December 2010 08:14 AM

Sure solitary animals don’t need morality, but when we humans began living in groups, we found that we had to have it to live together.  Society simply could not exist if it were acceptable to just kill one another for no reason.  In that sense, it is not at all “arbitrary” to think that killing others is wrong.

Large groups of social animals live together (numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands), without morals, and survive very well.  Society COULD exist if it were acceptable to kill one another without reason: and in fact it would better that way, by the evolutionist line of thinking; for the weak would quickly die or be killed, and the strong would live to reproduce. Morality PREVENTS just killing off the weak and “inferior” members of the human race, often allowing for them to reproduce and “slow down the evolutionary process.” *Enter Hitler with his attempt to “purify the human race”* Man should be making great evolutionary leaps if he had no compunctions about simply killing the weak members of his race. But then, we would lose much of what it means to be human, wouldn’t we?

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Posted: 04 December 2010 01:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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George - 03 December 2010 09:28 AM

Living in a group and the adequate sense of morality which allowed this to happen must have coevolved simultaneously.

Can you explain what the bold phrase means?

Imagine you are in a moral discussion about some real action to be done, how can you convince your discussion partner? What is an adequate sense of morality in such a discussion? What is the source of your arguments about what is the right action to take?

GdB

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Posted: 04 December 2010 08:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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George - 03 December 2010 09:28 AM
advocatus - 03 December 2010 08:14 AM

Sure solitary animals don’t need morality, but when we humans began living in groups, we found that we had to have it to live together.

Careful here, advocatus! We didn’t necessarily had to have it, but those who did have it were better adopted to the environment of living in group and passed on their genes to the next generation. As more and more people acquired this adaptive trait, larger groups, such as cities and eventually countries, were able to form. Living in a group and the adequate sense of morality which allowed this to happen must have coevolved simultaneously.

I stand corrected.  If we were going to live in large groups, moral codes made such social groups more coherent and gave them an advantage over groups that didn’t have them.  Is that better?

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Posted: 04 December 2010 08:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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ThatGuy - 03 December 2010 11:24 PM

Large groups of social animals live together (numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands), without morals, and survive very well.

Are you talking about wildebeast or buffalo?  I thought we were talking about intelligent animals.  Think more along the lines of lions.  They have a rigid social hierarchy where the young are cared for by the entire group.  I would contend that this IS a rudimentary code of morals.

  Society COULD exist if it were acceptable to kill one another without reason: and in fact it would better that way, by the evolutionist line of thinking;

Please give me one example of a human society which actually does exist this way.

  *Enter Hitler with his attempt to “purify the human race”* Man should be making great evolutionary leaps if he had no compunctions about simply killing the weak members of his race. But then, we would lose much of what it means to be human, wouldn’t we?

Oh yes I wondered when Hitler was going to make his appearance in this conversation.  It seems like every time a Christian talks about humanistic morality, it always comes down to Hitler. For your information, ThatGuy, Hitler was a CHRISTIAN!  He thought he was doing God’s work by ridding Germany of inferior races.  And originally he didn’t want them killed, he simply wanted to deport them.

And you still have a horribly narrow idea of what evolution is (probably been listening to too many creationists).  For some reason, the evolutionary trend among human ancestors was towards social groups, and among those social groups, moral values EVOLVED, as a natural consequence of living in social units.

Tell me truely, ThatGuy, do you REALLY think that the idea that “murder is wrong” is totally, completely arbitrary?  You really don’t see any utility in it?

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Posted: 04 December 2010 04:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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ThatGuy - 03 December 2010 11:24 PM

Large groups of social animals live together (numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands), without morals, and survive very well.

Name one! Large groups of animals have well defined rules that the others must follow, or they will be punished or evicted from the group. Even ants.

[ Edited: 04 December 2010 08:40 PM by asanta ]
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Posted: 04 December 2010 05:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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asanta - 04 December 2010 04:30 PM

Name one! Large groups of animals have well defined rules that the others must follow, or they will be punished or evicted from the group. Even ants.

I think you may be getting the hierarchy of authority common to animal groups confused with the moral standards unique to man.

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Posted: 04 December 2010 06:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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advocatus - 04 December 2010 08:41 AM

Are you talking about wildebeast or buffalo?  I thought we were talking about intelligent animals.  Think more along the lines of lions.  They have a rigid social hierarchy where the young are cared for by the entire group.  I would contend that this IS a rudimentary code of morals.

 

Again, I think that is not a set of morals, but more of a hierarchy of authority and a set of instinctual “rules.” And in the example of lions, the young are often eaten by the other lions, especially if a new alpha male appears over a pride: he will eat all of the young and start over to propagate HIS GENES. This fits well with humanistic evolution. A moral standard that prevents the alpha male from eating the progeny of other lions does not fit well. That is the point—man has that moral standard which animals do not.

advocatus - 04 December 2010 08:41 AM

Please give me one example of a human society which actually does exist this way.

 

I can’t give an example of a society that exists that way because I don’t think there IS one. That is my point. Man has morals. Humanistic evolution says he shouldn’t have a moral code or a conscience. 

advocatus - 04 December 2010 08:41 AM

Oh yes I wondered when Hitler was going to make his appearance in this conversation.  It seems like every time a Christian talks about humanistic morality, it always comes down to Hitler. For your information, ThatGuy, Hitler was a CHRISTIAN!  He thought he was doing God’s work by ridding Germany of inferior races.  And originally he didn’t want them killed, he simply wanted to deport them.

And you still have a horribly narrow idea of what evolution is (probably been listening to too many creationists).  For some reason, the evolutionary trend among human ancestors was towards social groups*, and among those social groups, moral values EVOLVED, as a natural consequence of living in social units.

Tell me truely, ThatGuy, do you REALLY think that the idea that “murder is wrong” is totally, completely arbitrary?  You really don’t see any utility in it?

Perhaps Hitler often makes an appearance because he is such a good and well-known example of what happens when one follows out the idea of humanistic evolution out to its logical end.  And quite frankly, I have no reason whatever to think Hitler was a Christian. He may have claimed the name for some PR reasons, but there was absolutely no indication that he truly was. I could say that I am an Asian who grew up in Hong Kong, but anyone who spent five minutes with me would know that is simply not true. I don’t look like it and I don’t act like it.

*“For some reason…”  Tell me, what is that reason? Evolution cannot explain it because of its own basic premise.  Evolution would dictate that moral standards not evolve, not that they do evolve. Again, moral standards would hinder the “survival of the fittest.”

And no, I don’t think that “murder is wrong” is completely arbitrary. In my worldview, it fits perfectly. But hypothetically speaking, if I were to convert to atheism and commit myself wholeheartedly to humanistic evolution, I would see no “utility” in it at all: because it would prevent the propagation of only the best genes.

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Posted: 04 December 2010 08:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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A pride of lions is not an example of a large group of animals.

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Posted: 04 December 2010 09:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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asanta - 04 December 2010 08:41 PM

A pride of lions is not an example of a large group of animals.

Advocatus was the one who brought up lions. And either way, what is your point?

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