Telling right from wrong?

This follows on from my post Can science shape human values? That included an audio of a discussion on science and morality recorded before the Origins of Morality Workshop held at Arizona State University recently.

On November 6th a panel of renowned scientists, philosophers, and public intellectuals gathered to discuss what impact evolutionary theory and advances in neuroscience might have on traditional concepts of morality. If human morality is an evolutionary adaptation and if neuroscientists can identify specific brain circuitry governing moral judgment, can scientists determine what is, in fact, right and wrong? The panelists were psychologist Steven Pinker, author Sam Harris, philosopher Patricia Churchland, physicist Lawrence Krauss, philosopher Simon Blackburn, bioethicist Peter Singer and The Science Network’s Roger Bingham.

The discussions was promoted as The great debate: Can science tell us right from wrong?

Videos of the Great debate are now up at the Science Network website (see
The Great Debate). I have reproduced them below. They are each about 14 minutes long.

Well worth watching. (The videos are now starting to be uploaded to Youtube – for those who prefer to download).

The Great Debate

The debate was introduced by Roger Bingham (The science Network) followed by Sam Harris.

Sam Harris is the author of the  “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values,” “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.” “The End of Faith” won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. Harris has a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA and a degree in philosophy from Stanford University. He is a co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
TSN: The Great Debate Panel, posted with vodpod

Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard. His research is on visual cognition and the psychology of language. Among his books are The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language,” “How the Mind Worksand The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.” He has been named Humanist of the Year, and is listed in Foreign Policy and Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and in Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” His latest book is The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.
TSN: Steven Pinker, posted with vodpod

Patricia Smith Churchland is a Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Her research focuses on the interface between neuroscience and philosophy. Her books include “Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy,” ”Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain and On the Contrary: Critical Essays, 1987-1997,” with husband Paul M. Churchland. Her newest book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality,” is due out in spring 2011.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
TSN: Patricia Smith Chuchland, posted with vodpod

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He is also a Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. Singer first became well-known internationally after the publication ofAnimal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals.” His latest books include The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty and The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty.” Singer was the founding president of the International Association of Bioethics, and with Helga Kuhse, founding co-editor of the journal Bioethics. Outside academic life, he is the co-founder and president of The Great Ape Project, an international effort to obtain basic rights for chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. He is also president of Animal Rights International.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

TSN: Peter Singer, posted with vodpod

Lawrence Krauss is a Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Department of Physics in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He also is director of the ASU Origins Project. He is the only physicist to have received the highest awards from all three major U.S. professional physics societies. His popular publications include The Physics of Star Trek,” “Quintessence,” “Atom : An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth…and Beyond,” “Hiding in the Mirror: The Quest for Alternate Realities, from Plato to String Theory (by way of Alice in Wonderland, Einstein, and The Twilight Zone),” and due out in 2011,Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science (Great Discoveries) and “A Universe from Nothing.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.
TSN: Lawrence Krauss, posted with vodpod

Simon Blackburn is the Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity College. He is also a visiting distinguished research professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Blackburn has written extensively on the philosophy of mind, language and psychology. Among his latest works are “Practical Tortoise Raising: and Other Philosophical Essays,” “The Big Questions: Philosophyand How to Read Hume.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

TSN: Simon Blackburn, posted with vodpod

Panel Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, Patricia Churchland, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer and Roger Bingham

Vodpod videos no longer available.
TSN: The Great Debate Panel, posted with vodpod

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9 responses to “Telling right from wrong?

  1. Pingback: BLABLABLACONTENIDOS.COM » Blog Archive » Telling right from wrong?

  2. Pingback: Dawkins answers questions | Open Parachute

  3. Thanks for the link Ken, I really enjoyed that.

    I think Sam Harris is getting more convincing as some of the rough edges go. I also thought that Patricia Churchland hit on the key point with the whole ought and is problem. Sure, it can be that we cannot derive ought from is in a deductive sense, but hey, science operates broadly on inductive logic in any case, and that is plenty good enough for science to inform our sense of right and wrong.


  4. Good point, Nick. I must admit I haven’t yet had the time to watch all the videos.

    However, this difference between deductive and inductive logic keeps coming up. Some people will assert that one can only “prove” something deductively. That of course leas to conservative positions as it doesn’t allow for the new and unknown. It also doesn’t react with reality.

    I think that “The Proof of the pudding lies in the Eating” makes a strong philosophical point – often ignored or denied by idealist philosophers.


  5. I think I would go even further in the following sense:

    A lot of people/ philosophers think of deductive logic or a priori reasoning as possessing a special trueness or platonic/metaphysical existence of it’s own similar to what I understand that Immanuel Kant was on about. It is ironic that Kant specifically criticised Hume’s idea that all reasoning, a priori or otherwise was underpinned by human experience and in that sense empirical when Hume is the source of the often quoted “cannot derive ought from an is” .

    The way I am coming to think about this is in terms of definition. What we consider to be a priori is so because we define it to be so, not because it has independent existence. We start with premises and build structures from the interaction of these premises using rules that are either premises or derived from other premises. A lot of these premises and rules themselves are defined this way because of our observations/experience (i.e 2+2=4 comes from our experience with physical objects). We then use these structures to collect and organise further observations.

    This is where induction comes in. As far as I can see, induction boils down to reasonable statistical arguments about future events based on observation, information and probability. In a real way, induction is all that we have to deal with reality, as deduction is not real, rather that which we define.

    In this sense, I don’t think I could disagree with what Sam Harris is saying. What else do we have to inform our morality? Looking inside ourselves? What a crock, we need to look out at the world around us.


  6. By the way, I am embarrassed to admit that I spent a little while looking at your last sentence there wondering if there was some new book I should be looking out for ;-), but of course, this is the succinct way of saying what I tried to at the end of my last post.


  7. Pingback: Telling right from wrong – unrelgiously | Open Parachute

  8. Pingback: A physicist comments on science and morality | Open Parachute

  9. Pingback: Science and morality – a panel discussion | Open Parachute

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