Neuroscientist and outspoken sceptic Sam Harris posits that the divide between 'science' and 'values' is really a false one and that we do actually base most of our moral conclusions upon factual claims, be they right or wrong.
Harris believes there is such a thing as right and wrong answers to questions about human well-being and that a universal conception of values is possible through a science of morality. We should not, says Harris, accept a system of moral relativism based on respect for religious beliefs or cultural differences and he outlines his argument via the video link below. It's a bit of a commitment to watch, it goes for about 20 minutes but he raises some interesting questions to do with our assumptions about morality:
I like a lot of what Harris says. But in this presentation (which I have seen before) he comes up short.
A point like "how have we convinced ourselves that there is no such thing as moral expertise" (versus expertise in physics) is a great point.
But the fact is that we must start with the assumption that human wellbeing is the goal for any of this to make sense. Then and only then can we prove through deduction that certain actions are moral and others are not.
I believe the actual basis for human wellbeing as a moral end is simply the fact that we are the ones doing the thinking. That is, simply by thinking or acting, we are assuming our own inherent value. That is the starting point for all subsequent moral deduction. (And a hell of a lot more coherent and convincing than starting with a supernatural entity.)
Harris is right that we can use logic and reason to determine moral rules and principles. But we must have a starting point. Unless Harris can provide such a starting point, a basis, he is just working with an arbitrary axiom.
Hi secs, thanks very much for responding. I'm not sure I understand you though. If we can accept that the definition of morality is the maximisation of wellbeing and the minimisation of suffering (not just for humans), then that is a good place to proceed from, isn't it?
Btw, I just now finished his little book "Free Will", only 60 pages or so and he makes a very persuasive argument against the possibility of freewill. I'm now convinced we don't have it., which, once accepted, really alters your perspective on life and not necessarily in a bad way.
But Harris does not provide any logical reason why the maximization of wellbeing should be the goal. There is still no reason to prefer that over the minimization of wellbeing. You have to assume one or the other as an axiom, in other words, on blind faith.
What about Postmodernism? That leads to nihilism.
I understand. According to Harris it's (the concern for well-being) the "only intelligible basis for morality and values” but that's an assumption that can't be tested scientifically and is open to question. Harris can't and doesn't claim an objective basis for morality...just the hope of a shared definition we can work with. What else have we got?
I agree Jane. Although I would say that postmodernism doesn't "lead to nihilism", but rather is a strain of nihilism spawned by Western science. My point is that science is necessary but not sufficient. It becomes problematic when people don't understand its limits, or for that matter how it works. All knowledge, including that produced by science, is dependent on a priori development of a model, and it is simply not possible to develop a model of any kind without taking a leap of faith. Most scientifically-minded folks don't like to admit this. Given Harris's commitment to determinism (a model), I expect he does not.
Postmodernism bites the hand that fed it then, as it's anti-science and certainly anti-enlightenment. Science is a very good tool, the best we've got, with which to dig out facts but yes, it's not everything. Thanks Joyus, for contributing.
Postmodernism is a reaction to science, particularly reductionist/positivist science. While I am not a postmodernist (and certainly not anti-science) I am sympathetic to its concerns. The Enlightenment was not as enlightented as modernists like to think. It is a mythology that is no longer serving us well.
Where would we be now if it hadn't happened? Still burning witches?
What are Enlightenment values? At its core, "It promoted science and intellectual interchange and opposed superstition,intolerance and abuses in church and state".(Wiki) I don't think that's a *mythology* we should grow out of.
Postmodernism did challenge things that deserved to be challenged but I don't like it because ultimately it renders everything meaningless.(and also because of the incredibly pretentious, obtuse language it so often employs in academia).
Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the Enlightenment and am glad it happened. My point is that it gave rise to reductionism, a flawed approach to being in the world that is at the root of the modern ecological and sociological problems stemming from the Industrial Revolution. As I said, postmodernism does not render everything meaningless--nihilism was the logical outcome of reductionism, which grew out of the work of Bacon, Descartes, and Newton, all theists. In fact, the intellectual founders of the Enlightenment were all theists. The train of thought that was the Enlightenment became a nihilistic enterprise however when it became atheistic, and postmodernism came in reaction to that. So postmodernism is really a predictable outgrowth of the Enlightenment and the atheistic mythology that it engendered and reinforced.
What I'm saying is that it's time to move on and develop new (or perhaps 'renewed') ways of relating to the world. The problems of the contemporary world are very different (and far more dire) than those of the 17th century world. Unfortunately 21rst century humanity is largely polarized into two camps, neither of which is working effectively to increase wellbeing: a theistic camp mired in the middle ages, and an atheistic camp stuck in the 17th century. Living in the past is no way to deal with the present, which is deteriorating at an accelerating rate. It's way past time for humanity to grow up and begin creating a healthier reality.
The atheist ' camp' as you call it, is not mired in the 17th century..as though there's no realisation that we are in a different world and have different issues and problems, although SOME things certainly haven't changed, such as intolerance and brutality caused by religious superstition. The Enlightenment values I described, as opposed to the Enlightenment period, have not passed their use-by date. Those values don't necessarily push atheism or agnosticism over theism. It's not part of a manifesto but if rational thought leads to that conclusion..what should we do...just pretend otherwise?
Postmodernism was also a reaction to Imperialism and manifested in part as a kind of post-colonial guilt complex. Left wing intellectuals sought to tear down the Great White Hegemony - they wanted to *equalise* cultures and one way to do this was to was to discredit and dismantle the scientific and rational underpinnings that had led to technologically advanced Western secular societies, for it was these countries that had become so powerful and dominant, crushing whole cultures in their wake. However, political imperialism is not the fault of Enlightenment values per say, but rather a failure to fully realise them. At the very centre those values is a concern for human freedom.
The chief reason many rationalists have become so vocal and active in recent years is because they have recognised the implications of this 'war on rational thought' and feared a new age of irrationalism.
The alternative way of thinking that you suggest sounds vague and blurry. Do you mean a kind of postmodern free-for-all where all ideas, and beliefs, no matter how nonsensical, are given equal value and in so doing they are pretty much all rendered meaningless, because there is no sorting the wheat from the chaff. ..? Postmodernism does not allow for the possibility of knowledge - it IS cognitive nihilism. Or if you don't mean that, then what?
You are being rather binary in your thinking Jane. Sometimes it is good to embrace the vague and blurry, because viewing things as cut-and-dried is a big part of the problem--it is the source of intolerance. You don't seem to be taking the Andre Gide quote that you put at the top of your profile page to heart.
If you truly believed in the Enlightenment values of freedom and tolerance then you would embrace a free-for-all discourse of ideas. That , unfortunately, is the only way ensure that knowledge stays flexible enough to remain realistic in an evolving universe.
I agree that the Enlightenment ideals have never been fully realized. Why do you think that is? I would suggest that answering that question gets directly to the crux of the problem: ideals are mental models, and therefore incapable of representing the complexity of the actual world. No model possibly can possibly be complete, and therefore no ideal can ever be fully realized. That is also why there is no such thing as capitalism or communism in the real world.
The fact is, the Western world is way out of balance and could use a healthy dose of Eastern mysticism.
The problem with the kind of naive realism espoused by Harris and other cocksure atheists is that it mistakes a mental model for the actual world. When you do that you lose touch with reality. Such literalism is why we are in the mess we are in.
That being said, I think science is a necessary human endeavor, and should be used to construct a better code of morality. I would say that the sciences that are best suited for doing that are ecology and psychology:
Oh yes. sew up the mouths of the anyone who diverges from my way of thinking!
Of course I want a free exchange of ideas Joyus. Do you really think that I don't? That's exactly what we're doing here in this thread, after all. But wanting a free discourse doesn't mean I should have to accept all ideas as being of equal worth, as Postmodernism demands. For example, giving women equal pay for equal work is a good idea, stoning them to death for not wearing a burqa in public is not. What I wouldn't like to see, and what I was lamenting in that last post, is a world where everything is reduced to a soup of relativism.
Probably. Yet those ideals were still powerful enough to have transformed a civilisation for the better, unless you believe we'd have been better off mired in priests, myths and superstition. Harking back to a mythical golden age of right-brain vagueness seems anything but realistic to me. I guess I still don't really understand what it is you're advocating Joyous - equal parts mysticism and religion with science and reason? Is that it? That 'vagueness and blurriness' is also very convenient when it comes to avoiding clear explanations.
I'm doubtful Eastern mysticism would be an antidote to the problems of the West. There were a lot of Westerners who got heavily into Eastern mysticism in the 70s and 80s - remember the Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh? In the end, it came to naught.
I agree with secularist. Morality ultimately is founded on a subjectively intuited, emotionally-based premise that cannot be tested scientifically: that wellbeing is good and suffering is bad. Science alone leads logically to nihilism (the belief that the universe lacks intrinsic meaning so nothing really matters), not morality. On the other hand science can and should be used to inform morality. For example, science supports the argument that a global economy based on capitalism and continued burning of fossil fuels is immoral, since scientific knowledge allows us to confidently say that corporate profiteering and climate change will predictably decrease wellbeing and increase suffering.
Just wanted to add
I don't see why atheism necessitates nihilism and certainly not moral nihilism.
OK, I'll be as "clear" as I can, because you clearly don't get what I'm trying to say (even though I clearly stated that I am not a postmodernist, only sympathetic to their concerns). In response to each of your points:
"But wanting a free discourse doesn't mean I should have to accept all ideas as being of equal worth, as Postmodernism demands."
Of course not. On the other hand you have to justify why you value some ideas over others, and be willing to deconstruct those justifications to see what they really are about. If you do that honestly you will sometimes find that the reasons you think you believe, intend, or do something are not the actual reasons you believe, intend, or do that thing. That is the root motivaton of postmodernism.
For example, you might think that science is all about the ideal of gaining knowledge to satisfy curiosity. I would argue that that is only part of the picture, and a decreasingly important one in the modern era. Science since Bacon, and more and more in contemporary reality, is about manipulation and control for the sake of economic interests. And I'm not saying that as a 'post-modernist', but rather as a working scientist who depends on the economic powers-that-be for my livelihood.
"What I wouldn't like to see, and what I was lamenting in that last post, is a world where everything is reduced to a soup of relativism."
Fair enough. But what is your yardstick for determining the absolute ? I take it that you will say "science". But as far as morality is concerned we've already established that science can only proceed from non-scientific assumptions, such as "wellbeing is good". How do you justify that one? Hitler would have agreed that wellbeing is good, and thought he had a solution to increasing wellbeing (as he saw it). And he used science to implement his solution, which he based on the American treatment of the indigenous peoples. That too was done to increase "wellbeing", as conceived by Enlightenment thinkers.
Bottom line: at some point you have to choose which "absolute" you want to commit to, and you can't use science to do that without making assumptions that are not scientifically testable. Or, I suppose, you can simply say "it doesn't matter what I do, it's all predetermined, and thus out of my control", as encouraged by certain strains of religion, or by determinists such as Harris (note that saying that everything is predetermined by "physics" is for intents and purposes no different than saying everything is predetermined by "God").
"Harking back to a mythical golden age of right-brain vagueness seems anything but realistic to me."
At this stage of the game it doesn't seem very realistic to me either, but neither does a future that avoids collapse of civilization. But then maybe that's where any hope lies. Everything begins vaguely, including all that is good. That is a fact of life.
"I'm doubtful Eastern mysticism would be an antidote to the problems of the West. There were a lot of Westerners who got heavily into Eastern mysticism in the 70s and 80s - remember the Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh? In the end, it came to naught."
The real awakening came int the 60s--by the 70s and 70s it was all over because it had become a cultish fad and most people completely missed the boat of what it is really all about. I could turn your argument around and say: there were a lot of Westerners who got heavily into Enlightenment values in the 19th and 20th centuries, but in the end it all came to naught.
"I don't see why atheism necessitates nihilism and certainly not moral nihilism."
Atheism does not necessitate nihilism, but it has contributed to its development. Nihilism is simply the Bohemian Rhapsody sentiment that "nothing really matters", based on the belief that life lacks intrinsic purpose, meaning, or value. It comes from determinsitic scientism that views all causality as mechanistic (mechanisms are intrinsically meaningless), coupled with atheism, which is the belief that divinity (however you choose to conceive that) is not real.
Gosh, what a lot of words to say believers are better than atheists. Why not just say that in the first place?
Really? In that case - you are saying that you are better. My mistake.
An easy one to make when you only engage half your brain. But no, I'm not saying that either. But at least your getting closer. Try again (third time's a charm).
Joyus, I know you're not a postmodernist ...I just felt compelled to justify myself on that point about the free exchange of ideas.
I agree moral conclusions have to be justified and since nothing is written in the sky - with no objective basis to turn to - the only we can do that is by reasoning things out, using science (and we have to be careful not to misuse it, as Hitler did) to help inform our choices, as you said earlier. Whatever makes the most sense wins on the field of ideas. We have to at least allow for the possibility of moral knowledge.
I can't see any other way of going about it. The alternative is to become cauterised by relativism, where no conclusion can triumph over another because all are equally unprovable as objective truths. Morality then becomes unworkable and we are forced to accept all kinds of atrocities as morally equal. I don't believe Hitler's sense of morality could have withstood too much rational scrutiny but of course, in a postmodern world we would have to accept his conclusions as being as valid as anyone else's.
Even if scientific determinism and atheism did lead to nihilism, that says nothing about whether or not it is true (determinism I mean). Reality is not always as we wish it to be, so reacting against the cause would be like shooting the messenger. But in my experience, most atheists are like anyone else, trying to carve out meaning from their own existence.
Jane, I think we are more or less in agreement, at least in regard to what matters. I will only add that from my perspective atheism and theism are both fundamentally flawed stances, in that they are both literal (i.e. unrealistic) interpretations of a world that does not admit of literal interpretations. In other words, theism and atheism are both developed products of left-brain linguistic dominance, a divisive way of thinking born of a manipulative (i.e. selfish) desire to fully explain ('grasp') the world rather than relate to it on its own terms. To me that is a fool's errand.
Well it depends on your definition of atheism - if we take it to mean simply an absence of belief in God/Gods, then I don't think that is unreasonable. Let's face it, none of the man-made versions of God stack up and in the absence of any other version presenting itself, what is there to believe in?
However, we must always allow for "things in Heaven and Earth, beyond our philosophy". (trying to use a bit of right-brain there...)
Atheism can simply mean one does not accept the claims of theists, regardless if their claims are about gods, demons, angels or anything else they claim exists without providing a shred of evidence.
And, somehow that's fundamentally flawed and a fool's errand?
Science is different from morality. In science Einstein got E = mc squared. Morality deals with how science is used. Einstein's formula is neither good nor bad per se; it can be used for bad like killing people and for good like generating electricity. Science of morality is a misnomer. May be to say a collection of morals would do that is systematized but systematization is not automatically science. The filing is scientific but the contents are not.
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