22 thoughts on “Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions?

  1. I saw this one yesterday. Absolutely wonderful. Highly recommended. For those who cannot watch it direct through TED, here is a YouTube link:

  2. I find this very intellectually weak – I like Harris, although I don’t always agree with him, and I like this delivery, but I think he succeeds here by making a poor argument for reductionism to facts – by eliding complexities and ways that things can function. I’m not impressed by this, and I’m surprised this is being passed around.

  3. I really get rather irritated with this idea that values can be equated with objective and presumably universal truth. I do believe that science can speak to morality, but only in terms of the existence of morality.

    Right now we have a general consensus about certain moral questions in the western world. There is a great deal of variety on a great many moral questions, but for certain big ones there are relatively few people who would argue against the consensus. However, that consensus looked a lot different less than fifty years ago. And there are many cultures that have very different views on morality.

    It is a huge fallacy to assume that because one accepts that other cultures have different moral frames, they are by needs accepting those other moral frames as sacrosanct. My recognition that in some cultures the mistreatment of women is not only considered perfectly acceptable, but is actually a moral imperative, does not mean that I cannot be extremely critical of that moral frame. Indeed, if I have an interest in fostering changes to those moral frames that I believe are barbaric and vile, it is important for me to approach the problem with the recognition that for them it is as much a moral issue as it is for me. That those people, all the input that goes into the development of a moral frame resulted in what I find so repugnant.

    I absolutely believe that science can speak to morality. But I believe science can speak to morality, because I believe that science can speak to all of the factors that go into the development of our moral frames. I think that this is ultimately part and parcel with the ideas I am exploring at the intersect of language, culture and cognition. Indeed this is something that I have considered through this process of learning about language and culture and the evolution of human cognition.

    But I think the only objective moral truth, is that excepting pathological sociopaths, everyone develops a moral frame. I have yet to see a coherent argument – science based or otherwise – that would suggest otherwise.

  4. You can’t discuss the ideas in it, positively or negatively, if you haven’t seen it.

    But then you have people like Greg Laden passing it around without pointing out that it is wrong. Sean Carroll took a shot at it.

  5. But then you have people like Greg Laden passing it around without pointing out that it is wrong.

    So fucking what? Are we all too stupid to evaluate it for ourselves? It may well be that Greg has no opinion – is reserving judgment. It may well be he agrees with it. Or it may well be that he rather strenuously disagrees, but didn’t want his position to bias the discussion. There are all sorts of reasons that one might post a video without comment – I think we can survive it.

    Personally, I am all for spreading this sort of thing around, because I see a lot of this attitude about science speaking to universal moral truths becoming increasingly common. Rather than ignoring it in the hopes that it will go away, I would much rather respond to it. I think there are few worse ideas than trying to find a humanist excuse for universal moral truths. The last thing we should be trying to do is to replace religious dogma with secular dogma.

    But if no one brings it up, we aren’t likely to talk much about it.

  6. You know Virgil and Sharon, instead of whining about people posting this video, you might consider actually explaining why it is so very wrong. Or would that be too constructive and useful for you?

  7. DuWayne: I’d rather sit back and savour the irony of your first chewing into me for mentioning that GL did not explain or comment on the video, and then “suggesting” that I do so myself. In other words, DuWayne: go fuck yourself.

  8. The issue isn’t that science has nothing to say about morality, rather the issue is that science can only be used to falsify hypotheses. To use science to evaluate issues of morality, you first have to come up with the hypothesis that a certain action is â??moralâ?, and then science can evaluate it, but it then requires the definition of all terms and premises.

    Depending on what those premises are, the â??morality hypothesisâ? may be true or false. Different premises result in different truth values for different â??morality hypothesesâ?.

    For example if the premise is that â??what ever Daedalus says is moral is by definition moralâ?, then we can test the morality of any action simply by asking Daedalus, and the answers will always be correct. This is in effect what the patriarchal religions do, but they simply substitute the patriarch for the infallible Daedalus.

    Virtually all institutional notions of â??moralityâ? have as their highest imperative obedience to the institutional hierarchy. From that observation we can see that those institutional notions of morality are not really about â??moralityâ?, they are about institutional power and authority.

  9. What irony jackass? You are complaining that Greg posted a video that espouses a bad argument, without commenting on it. If you think it is wrong, then why not explain why you think it is wrong, instead of whining about Greg not explaining why it is wrong? My suspicion would be that you would much rather whine like a petulant child, than go through the effort of actually making a point.

    In other words, either join the conversation or shut the fuck up and let those of us who want to discuss it do so.

  10. Actually, Virgil, I’m pretty sure that DuWayne was suggesting that complaining that someone else didn’t do the same thing you’re not doing is the problem. That’s much more like a black fly in your chardonnay.

  11. Perhaps I misunderstood Greg’s posting it without comment, but I’ve seen it presented several times as “wow, finally we see the truth that science can tell us all about morality” and that’s what I find annoying about it – but you are right, Greg’s lack of comment doesn’t necessarily imply approval. I’m not suggesting that its wrong to post, just that it isn’t very interesting and I’m surprised people seem so pleased by it.

    As for why I didn’t do a long critique on it – short on time today. I’m debating whether there’s enough there that overlaps with my own areas of interest to be worth doing a post about why I think Harris is wrong.

  12. I’m surprised this is being passed around.

    Good question, and it brings up a point about blogging (or at least this blog) that I think is important.

    I have not watched this talk. That statement will enrage some of my readers who feel that by posting something I’m endorsing it. However, it is not the case that posting something is endorsing it. No such rule exists, plain and simple, full stop, end of story. If I say I endorse something then even then I may change my mind. If I say nothing, what can be assumed?

    At the same time, yes, it is true that I generally post stuff I want to promote, but as suggested by Stephanie and others above, I may be promoting a discussion rather thana point of view.

    This video has been passed around on Facebook for the last few days, and I figure I’ve got to get around to watching it, and I will. Posting it here is part of the runup for my eventual evaluation and critique of it. If I understand correctly, this is an area that I am interesting in and know something about, so I’m looking forward to watching the video (maybe the longer version) and producing a few remarks, or more, about it.

    It is funny to look back at the comments and see a fight emerging about this.

    Anyway, I’ll tell you in advance that I’m not likely to be sympathetic to an argument that “science produces or explains morality” in part because I’ve seen very little that has been done in that area that is very good. I tend to think that science CAN inform us rearding moral/ethical decisions, but not as an overarching coming from above sort of “source” but rather as a tool that can be used here and there, with no clear a priori reasoning as to where it might work well vs. not.

    Like I used science in relation to animal rights elsewhere on this blog. For a certain set of reasons, figuring out which organisms should get more vs. less special status, one can and I think should use phylogeny (together with other things). That is a link between science and ethics/morality that is fairly particularistic and quirky, but valid and useful.

    So, let’s see the discussion continue on the contents of the video, and shift away from endorsement or not and how that all works. BTW, go back and look at all the previous TED talks I’ve posted. Half of them are disagreeable crap, but almost all of them are very disussable.

  13. I’ve seen it presented several times as “wow, finally we see the truth that science can tell us all about morality” and that’s what I find annoying about it…

    See Sharon, this is exactly why I am rather glad to see people creating an excuse to have this discussion. I cannot begin to describe how very irritating it is to see this meme going around – though I expect you share my irritation. While this is the first time I have seen this video, I have run across this discussion on some blog posts and in the context of both of the skeptics groups I am involved with. Actually, I have run across it more in face to face discussions, than I have online.

    I am bothered as much as I am by it for two reasons, the second necessarily following the first. First off, I think that making this claim in the context of science, is a lot like people who claim to be proponents of evolutionary psych claiming that the evidence of evo-psych implies that brown people are less intelligent and women should be subservient to men because that is how evolution got us here. I am very interested in evo-psych and it pisses me off that I have to waste words when I say as much, clarifying that I am not one of those asshats. I am also very interested in the science of culture, language and cognition – including the development of moral frames.

    Indeed, the discussion of science and morality is part and parcel with the discussion of evo-psych. Just not the way that, in this case Harris, seems to think it is. Nor in the way that DJ Grothe described it when I saw him speak about it. And neither in the way that the Brights seem keen on pushing it. Ultimately these claims are based on wishful thinking that clouds the judgment of people who should damn well know better. Cloaking these claims as science is just as bad science as the claims of racist and sexist evo-psych proponents.

    The other reason that I get so very cranky about this bullshit, is that I spent most of my 34 years struggling with religious bullshit. While my relationship with dogma was a, shall we say, “interesting” one, I am fucking well done with dogma. That is not to say that I split with my faith to be done with dogma – to the contrary, I actually have a much more stringent moral frame than I ever have in the past. But I do not conduct myself in ways I believe are right because some god figure tells me to. I have the moral frame that I do, because this is where a combination of cultural, experiential and physiological inputs have brought me.

    I suspect that science even has a lot to say about the process by which my moral frame was developed.

    But that moral frame is mine. Not the same as the moral frames of my ancestors – the cultural input is very different. Not the moral frame of your average Iranian national – again, the cultural input is too different. Nor is it the same as yours or Greg’s or Stephanie’s. I am sure that our moral frames have a lot in common, but I doubt they are entirely the same.

    People like to bring up things like murder, rape or care of children to make these universal claims – but it falls apart. Murder is the worse – what exactly is murder? Does this mean that any taking of human life is immoral? If not, who’s line between rightful and wrongful death is the universal moral truth? But what about rape then? If there is a universal moral truth about rape, then first off, we need to absolutely define rape – something that right or wrong, a lot of people define in a lot of different ways. And even if we could agree, do we then make the claim that every culture that has looked at rape as a amoral act at worse was totally without moral compass? That they simply didn’t have any moral frame? And when it comes to kids, our western ideals are born of a very different culture. That is not to say that people in developing countries don’t love their children – they most certainly do. But they also have a very different attitude about losing children – their infant mortality rates require it. There have been and as far as I know still are cultures that practice infanticide to prevent a child that will starve otherwise, from going through that suffering and to make sure there is that little bit more for those who are more likely to.

    We won’t even go into China and the impact of their one child laws.

    Fuck people and their claims of universal moral truths. The ideal is patently absurd and the desire to find such truths is little different than the drive to Believe in something greater than oneself.

  14. Bill: Let’s start with something less obviously inflammatory. Like, for instance, did Lt. Calley and and his troops commit murder? Then we can cover a couple of other issues, then circle back to abortion.

  15. Not intended to be inflammatory. It is a test case that would quickly lay bare all essential components of science, morality and their precursors. It is also a subject that most of us have wrestled with at some point and therefore offers a modicum of near universal familiarity. That said, it certainly can be an emotional issue and to debilitating degree.

  16. Holy shit! I was just reading Harris’ response to some of his critics (i.e. Sean Carrol) and one of us has a very confused understanding of science. With all due respect to apparently recently frocked Dr. Harris, I do not think it is me. While he breaks the rather important rule of defining one’s terms, by not coherently defining “morality” he does us all the kindness of defining the term “science” to mean something that bares little resemblance to any definition I have seen.


    Damn you Greg – you made me get all cranky and now I have to write a post about it…I really don’t have time for this shit.

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