Tag Archives: Sam Harris

Can philosophers, or anyone, tell us what is “right” and “wrong”?

Empirical-ethics

Credit: Descartes Centre

It’s no secret philosophers and scientists sometimes seem to be in conflict. I’m not talking about philosophers of religion (there are epistemological grounds for an inevitable conflict with science there). No, I mean philosophers in general. And the conflict usually involves claims being made about the respective roles of science and philosophy. A sort of professional demarcation issue.

Massimo Pigliucci often seems to go into battle on the philosophers side. I often think this reflects his own sensitivity to any real, or perceived, criticism of the role of philosophy. For example, in his recent article Michael Shermer on morality he referred to the “simplistic dismissal of philosophy a la Harris-Krauss-Hawking.” He seems to be reacting to provocation!

But at other times he goes deeper and critiques what he sees as “scientism,” intrusion of scientists into areas he feels should not concern them, or claims that he feels are being made for science outside its special domain. Morality is an area he is sensitive to and he confesses (in the above article) to taking upon himself the role of “chastising skeptics like Sam Harris* on the relationship between philosophy, science and morality.”

Some critics seem to have knee jerk reaction to any scientific investigation of human morality, or to scientists who comment on morality. Pigliucci is not one of those – he will concede that science can properly investigate many areas of morality. For example, he says in the above article:

“This is not at all to say that science is irrelevant to ethical reasoning. No philosopher I know of holds to that absurd position (except perhaps a dwindling band of stubborn theologians).”

And

“we need an evolutionary understanding of where a strong sense of right and wrong comes from as an instinct, and a neurobiological account of how our brains function (or malfunction) when they engage in ethical reasoning.”

But he adds the following (and this may indicate where he sees the problem):

“But it is the moral philosopher, not the evolutionary biologist or the neurobiologist, we should check with if we want to know whether a particular piece of ethical reasoning is logically sound or not.”

I interpret this to mean that it’s OK for the relevant scientist to investigate morality in their area of speciality – evolutionary psychology, cognitive biology, etc. But when it come to actually using logic, doing ethical reasoning, that’s the job of the philosopher, in particular the moral philosopher.

Must we always rely on philosophers for logic?

On the surface that seems reasonable – specialists have their speciality and non-specialists  should defer to the specialist when considering relevant areas. Mind you, I don’t accept that reasoning and logic are the exclusive domain of philosophers. Science does involve reasoning and logic – even in highly developed forms like mathematics.

We in fact receive a certain amount of training in such areas as part of a science degree. Consequently a chemist, physicist or biologist may be quiet proficient at applying mathematics in their area. Although the wise individual recognises their level of understanding and will involve the mathematical specialist if they feel it necessary. In my own research I always involved statisticians – and while I often carried out my own statistical tests I always checked later with a statistician.

And in ethical areas – how complex is the logic involved? Does one have to be able to express each proposition in the appropriate academic notation and be aware of all possible transformations before one can decide, on the basis of the facts and one’s values what is “right” and “wrong?” How would the “person in the street” react to that suggestion?

Who does the lay person trust on moral questions?

I am very sceptical of any group claiming for itself a special role on moral questions. And I don’t think that attitude is unusual. When it comes to decision making in social and ethical areas these day I think the individual herself usually wants to be involved. They won’t automatically just rubber stamp decisions made by specialists – scientists or philosophers.

Take climate change. I think most members of the public actually do accept what climate scientists say about human influence on the planet’s climate. After all, a lot of effort and money has gone into the research. It has been reviewed extensively, there is a wide scientific consensus about the science, and honest awareness of gaps in knowledge. And the conclusions are conservative and  usually presented moderately, with scientific qualifications.

But the climate scientists do not tell us what we should or shouldn’t do politically. Their science informs our decisions (and the decisions of our governments), but it doesn’t determine them. Economic specialists will also have input into recommendations for mitigation of, or accommodation to, climate effects. They will also inform. And while governments and democratic institution in each country make the final decisions on any resulting plans, we all expect that we should have the ability to influence those decisions.

I think this is even truer on moral issues. In the end morality concerns individuals and their actions. We insist on making those decisions ourselves. And especially in this sort of area our decisions and actions are not based only on evidence or logic - inevitably our emotions and value judgements are involved. So we are understandably not happy about any suggestion  that others, specialist or not, make those decisions for us.

So scientists can inform us regarding moral issues. They might give us facts – like when neural activity is present in a foetus, do animals feel pain, is sexual preference innate or learned, etc. But its up to us to use that information when we make decisions on moral questions like abortion, factory farming and eating meat or marriage equality. And we insist that this final decision is for us alone – not the scientist.

I think we would have the same attitude toward the moral philosopher. We might listen to their reasoning (if they communicate it properly), maybe even take it on board, but will still make the final decision ourselves. Because that decision involves far more than the scientist’s evidence and the philosopher’s logic. It also involves our own values and emotions.

We have got used to saying that while science can inform us on moral issues it cannot tell us what is “right” and “wrong”. I think most people today will also want to extend that to say that neither can philosophy tells us what is “right” and “wrong.”

Today we (or at least those of us who value autonomy) no longer allow priests and theologians to make moral decision for us. Why would we allow philosophers to do so – even if they are “moral philosophers.”


* It has become fashionable to criticise Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values because of its probably over-optimistic predictions of a future role of neuroscience in moral decision making. However, I think there is a lot of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” here. The main purpose of Harris’s book was a strong (and some would say overdue) criticism of moral relativism –  and this is often ignored by his critics.

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A disciplined discussion

I have commented several times that the debate format is very unsatisfactory and have favoured a discussion format for public discussion. Richard Dawkins has tried out a number of such discussion formats, I think successfully.

But I think this one is actually quite ambitious – four personalities in discussion, on stage, in front of an audience of 4000. It actually comes out very well. With no chairperson or moderator, everyone seems to get a fair go. No one dominates. And the discussion is fascinating. I would love to have been there.

It’s the panel discussion between Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali which occurred at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention
held in Melbourne last April.

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris & Ayaan Hirsi Ali – YouTube.

It’s an hour-long – but very interesting.

Approaching morality scientifically

Yeah, right! So why leave morality to theologians?

In his recent criticism of Jerry Coyne’s* USA Today article As atheists know, you can be good without God, local theologian Matt Flannagan repeats his rather tiresome warning that scientists should not try to understand morality – “leave that to us theologians.” He says:

“Of course, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and a host of other popular writers, Coyne has not bothered to actually read the literature on contemporary theological ethics before wading in. Instead he hopes that his stature as a biologist and his confident tone will convince many unfamiliar with the field that he has offered a devastating criticism.”

Yeah, right!

Well, my response is:

If scientists are not the people to investigate and develop an understanding of human morality, who are?

Certainly not theologians!

History show they have not been up to that task. Matt’s theological article demonstrates this – it is simply an attack on Coyne. His own explanation for human morality is “divine commands!” And he doesn’t supply any evidence either for “commands” or “divine agency.” Only faulty argument.

Two points in Matt’s article are worth expanding on.

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2012 Global Atheist Convention – Melbourne

The organisers of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne have announced that tickets will go on sale from September 1st. If you are planning to go I recommend an early purchase as they did sell out quickly last time. And successful as the 2010 Convention was this one is shaping up to be even better.

Convention organisers are announcing confirmed speakers one at a time – The latest is Ayan Hirsi Ali who is certainly going to be a crowd drawer. She is one of my heroines.

Photos of the other speakers so far announced are below. Click on the individual photos to go to their details.

Daniel DennettRichard DawkinsSam HarrisChristopher HitchensAnnie Laurie GaylorLeslie CannoldPZ MyersLawrence KraussEugenie ScottPeter SingerCatherine DevenyDan BarkerFiona PattenLawrence LeungKylie SturgessTanya SmithAyaan Hirsi Ali

Pat Churchland on the science of morality

A few months ago there was a flurry of attention around Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape and lectures he gave around the time of its publication. A lot of it critical – but not all.

I thought the value of this book is that he did take on the problem of moral relativism in a way that religious moralists have been unable to. I think his contribution was valuable for that.

But, people seem to be ignoring a better book recently published on this subject. This is Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. I highly recommend it as being very sensible and enlightening. it also will answer some of the questions readers might feel Sam Harris was unable to.

I have written before on this book and some of Churchland’s talks. However, I think a recent podcast will be very useful for those following this subject. It’s from The Partially Examined Life (Episode 41: Pat Churchland on the Neurobiology of Morality (Plus Hume’s Ethics)). The discussion is with  Mark and Dylan Casey who are relatively knowledgable on philosophy so Pat’s arguments are quite deep. However, even non-philosophers will get a lot from the discussion. It’s 1 hr 45 min long but you can  Download the podcast (96.1MB)

There are three points I wish to make on the content of the podcast:

1: Is consciousness over-rated?

Pat Churchland devoted little of her discussion to the unconscious, or subconscious, aspects of human morality. The conscious aspects are important to understanding social rules and lawmaking, and to understanding how humans set up moral societies. But at the day-to-day and personal level our instincts and intuitions are critical. We operate largely in the automatic mode.

I am sure Pat acknowledges the important role of the subconscious, it’s just that in this discussion it was not really covered.

2: What do we mean by “right” and “wrong”?

I would love Pat to delve into this aspect more deeply. She does divorce the concepts from any absolute or objective meaning, particularly a divine one. At the same time she is not adopting a purely relativist approach. I feel sure that she would accept that while morality is not objective, it does at least have a objecitve basis in the facts of situations and in human make up. Particularly in the human brain.

However, most people do feel there is something special about saying something is “right” or “wrong”. It feels absolute or objective. We are not just expressing an opinion.

Personally, I think this is part of our evolved moral intuitions. We have evolved to operate in an automatic mode – we just don’t have time to apply reasoning and logic to every moral situation we face. Consequently there needs to be some sort of emotional/intuitional feeling about our possible responses and decisions. We need to feel that we are doing the correct thing. That it is “right.” Or that something we find disagreeable or repugnant is “wrong.” Emotionally, not logically. Churchland does describe in her book how these intuitions can evolve naturally from the interests of living organisms.

So we have these strong feelings/emotions of “right” and “wrong.” So strong, and  partly because they are automatic, they can at times seem external. It is no accident that cartoons will often portray our conscience as a little being sitting on our shoulder and advising us. That is what it feels like.

So I can see why many people will argue that our concepts of right and wrong are objective, presented to us externally (and therein we get the leap of logic to divine beings and divine commands). But we can see the intuitions of “right” and “wrong” are really evolved. Not objective or absolute. And, capable of changing over time as society changes or more information is required. This is quite consistent with an objectively based morality.

3: Pat is really more helpful than Sam

I found Pat’s comments on Sam Harris’s book far more critical than I have heard from her in the past. They are friends so her criticisms are not a personal attack – they are the evaluation of a philosopher and neuroscientist. Consequently her criticisms are far more relevant than those made by theological critics. We all know what is driving them, and that is why their critiques usually have no value.

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Ideology and violence

Religious violence a concern of academics too

I want to comment here on some strawmannery from a local theologian/philosopher of religion (Matt at MandM) in his post Religion and Violence. But first two important points:

1: He concentrates on the common perception of a relationship between religion and violence made by atheist writers (he claims these “themes abound in the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.”). Matt’s obsession with atheists obscures the fact that this theme is also common in academia, and indeed theology. Theologian Alister McGrath, for example, has welcomed the fact that this problem has been brought to popular attention.  And this recognised relationship between religion and violence concerns many people who for governmental or professional reasons have to deal with terrorism and its influence.

2: Any analysis which limits violence and terrorism to the influence of religion is far too simple. Unfortunately this naivety is sometimes advanced by using Stephen Weinberg’s quote:

“With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

I criticised the way atheists sometimes use this quote in my article Sources of evil? Partly because it does lead to them being misrepresented, open to strawmannery.  I pointed out:

“None of these authors [Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris   and Michael Jordan] claim religion inevitably leads to evil. As Richard Dawkins said in a recent Newsweek article “It would be absurd to suggest such a thing: just as absurd as to generalize about all atheists.” Nor are they denying the evil carried out in the name of non-religous causes.”

That’s why I suggested that Weinberg’s quote should have really read:

“With or without ideology you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes ideology.”

Bait and switch? Continue reading

Confronting accomodationism

Or is it accommodating confrontationism? I guess it depends on the image you wish to portray.

I have followed the accomodationism vs confrontationism (or “new atheism,” or “gnus”) debate among US atheist and science bloggers with interest. Mainly because I think it is relevant to the question of the relationship between science and religion, and the current changes in public acceptability of non-theism.

On the “confrontationist” side there are bloggers like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Eric Macdonald and Jason Rosenhouse. Also authors like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Richard Dawkins.

They are vocal and unapologetic about their atheism. Rejecting the idea that one should not criticise religion because it is “disrespectful” and that religion therefore has a “go home free card” not available in other areas of human discourse such as politics, sport and science.  Generally they will assert that there are basic epistemological differences between science and religion and they should not be conflated. The boundaries are stark and should be clear. Science should be honest and uncompromising about evidence and conclusions and not feel it has to accommodate religion or superstition by giving lip service to it.

On the “accomodationist” side there are commentators, journalists and bloggers like Chris Mooney, Micheal Ruse and Josh Rosenau. Others such Massimo Pugliocci at times advance at least some of the accomodationist arguments.

Accomodationists generally argue that the “new atheists” are too confrontational. That their insistence on talking about their atheism and the problems of relgion isolates the US public. Their confrontational language is offensive to the religious majority. It doesn’t win friends and in fact is turning people away from science. Scientists, and atheists, should go easy on religion, never confront it, even make concessions to religion, in the interests of winning public support for evolutionary science and science in general. If anything the “new atheists” or “gnus” should STFU – leave the defense of science and evolutionary science to religious scientists.

One of the latest discussions of this issue took place on the podcast Point of Inquiry recently where Ronald A. Lindsay interviewed Chris Mooney. (See  Chris Mooney – Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief May 09, 2011.) It’s a good-natured discussion which I found useful because Chris does clearly present his arguments.

Several issues interested me:

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A non-theist feast down under!

This just in from the organisers of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention –‘A Celebration of Reason’

Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens have been announced as speakers. (And have a look at the last sentence – a breakthrough!).


The Atheist Foundation of Australia is excited to announce that the next Global Atheist Convention – ‘A Celebration of Reason’ will feature headline speakers Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens (health permitting).

The Global Atheist Convention will be held once again at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre from13 – 15 April 2012.

”This is the first time that the Four Horsemen have spoken together publicly in five years,” said Atheist Foundation President David Nicholls. ”Their best-selling books on atheism earned the group the moniker ‘The Four Horseman of the Anti-Apocalypse’, and fittingly so as they have been instrumental in bringing forth a new enlightenment in the face of growing irrationality, fundamentalism and superstitious thinking around the world.”

The 2010 Global Atheist Convention gave local, interstate and international attendees the opportunity to hear first-rate speakers from a range of fields including science, philosophy, politics, education, stand-up comedy and more.

”Atheism has provided the perfect foundation in which people can come together to celebrate science, reason and secular values in today’s society. With the planet in a state of organised chaos and the menace of religious extremism threatening everyone’s quality of life, this 2012 world-class event will once again provide rational discussion and debate about what can be done to address the issues facing the globe,” said Nicholls.

”The 2012 Global Atheist Convention – ‘A Celebration of Reason’ will also send an important message to Australia’s political institutions that freethinking Australians are a growing force to be reckoned with.”

The entire line-up for the convention will be released gradually via official social media streams in the lead-up to   tickets going on sale later in the year. The last convention sold out well in advance, leaving many people disappointed to have missed out. The Atheist Foundation of Australia expects this event will also sell out very quickly and encourages prospective attendees to purchase their tickets as soon as they go on sale.

The Atheist Foundation has succeeded in obtaining financial support from the Victorian Government for the convention.

See also: Government comes to atheist party

Is there a role for science in morality?

In our discussion of the science of morality commenters often assert that science may be able to describe why and how we are moral but it cannot make moral decisions for us. Or tell us what is right and wrong. Sometimes these commenters have their own motive – a covert or overt interest in promoting a religiously determined moral code and they don’t want another discipline intruding into “their” arena. At other times they may be reacting to a simplistic interpretation of the role of science. This is common in criticisms of The Moral Landscape (and Harris did not help by using the subtitle “How Science Can Determine Human Values”). In partial mitigation of Harris’s position he does make clear, often, that he is using “science” in a very general sense – including philosophy and history.

Emotions in human decisions

Our moral decisions are different to the apparently straightforward decisions a physical scientist might make relying on evidence. Logic and reasoning, and validation against reality. Being social animals things are never that simple for us. And we have evolved not to be a rational animal, more a rationalising one. Our decisions will usually involve our emotions and intuitions as well as evidence and reasoning. In fact research suggests that an emotional component is essential in decision-making. Where emotions are impaired people find decision-making impossible. We are also influenced by the moral attitudes of others, and in some situations a moral decision may involve a democratic process. Moral ideas get validated against society and not objective reality.

But the fact is human morality is now a very live area of scientific research and discussion. This is generally about how our morality works and its origins, and not using “science” as such to prove a moral position. But there is no doubt that an awareness of the science of morality may actually influence moral decision-making, particularly during public discussion and deliberation. Science indicates our morals are not simply “relative” (anything goes depending on our own feelings) or “divinely” commanded (our god tells us what is right and wrong – just accept it), or based on tradition. If that is publicly accepted then the proponents of “divine” commands, tradition, or relativism will have less influence on our moral deliberations.

Sure, our prejudices and emotions will still be involved. Our religious beliefs and cultural influence will also play a role. But there will be far more acceptance of discussion about facts and accepted ideas of what is good for society and individuals. In the past religion and tradition have been far too influential in such discussions. Hell, this example from a potential US presidential candidate shows they are still too influential (see Bachmann: God Told Me To Introduce Constitutional Amendment Prohibiting Same-Sex Marriage In MN). I think our moral progress has only been possible to the extent we have been able to override those influences.

Role of public deliberation

One argument that came through strongly for me in the Edge New Science of Morality  Seminar was the role of social or public deliberation of moral questions. (See The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) ) Particpation of a range of individuals helps make sure that prejudice and individual emotion don’t play a determining role. A group can be more rational than an individual. This indicates that groups and social decision-making may produce better moral, and hence legal, decisions than those made by individuals.

Of course, in the end our actions are made mostly by individuals. And very often these decisions and action are the result of unconscious moral decisions. But, as I pointed out in Foundations of human morality, our subconscious moral position is always changing. We are always learning and what we learn consciously becomes integrated into our subconscious. Similarly we are learning without deliberate intellectual consideration just by being a member of society, exposed to the changing moral zeitgeist through our entertainments and social contact. Just consider what influence the portrayal of women and gays has had on influence individual moral attitudes over the years.

Yes, there is an important role

So, I think the current interest in the science of morality is important. It’s important from the point of view of knowledge, of finding out and understanding more about our species and its behaviour. But I also think its important because it will help us be more rational about our moral deliberations and decisions.

That must be a good thing.

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Philosophical justifications for morality

I will use this post to answer some of the more philosophical questions commenters have raised on my science of morality articles here and at the SciBlogs syndicated version. (Open Parachute@SciBlogs). Last time in Answering questions on morality I responded to some specific questions from a critical religious apologist.

One outline of my approach is in Foundations of human morality but I have discussed these ideas in many other posts.

Once again I thank all those who have critiqued my ideas – I have found the input valuable. And I welcome further criticisms

Are philosophical justifications required for morality?

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