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A Science of Morality?

  1. Jane Bovary profile image87
    Jane Bovaryposted 4 years ago

    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:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww

    1. secularist10 profile image90
      secularist10posted 4 years ago in reply to this

      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.

      1. Jane Bovary profile image87
        Jane Bovaryposted 4 years ago in reply to this

        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.

        1. secularist10 profile image90
          secularist10posted 4 years ago in reply to this

          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.

          1. Jane Bovary profile image87
            Jane Bovaryposted 4 years ago in reply to this

            Joyus,

            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?

            1. Joyus Crynoid profile image87
              Joyus Crynoidposted 4 years ago in reply to this

              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.

              1. Jane Bovary profile image87
                Jane Bovaryposted 4 years ago in reply to this

                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.

                1. Joyus Crynoid profile image87
                  Joyus Crynoidposted 4 years ago in reply to this

                  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.

                  1. Jane Bovary profile image87
                    Jane Bovaryposted 4 years ago in reply to this

                    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).

  2. Joyus Crynoid profile image87
    Joyus Crynoidposted 4 years ago

    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.

  3. Jane Bovary profile image87
    Jane Bovaryposted 4 years ago

    Just wanted to add



    I don't see why atheism necessitates nihilism and certainly not moral nihilism.

    1. Joyus Crynoid profile image87
      Joyus Crynoidposted 4 years ago in reply to this

      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.

      1. Mark Knowles profile image61
        Mark Knowlesposted 4 years ago in reply to this

        Gosh, what a lot of words to say believers are better than atheists. Why not just say that in the first place?

        1. Joyus Crynoid profile image87
          Joyus Crynoidposted 4 years ago in reply to this

          Because that's not what I'm saying.

          1. Mark Knowles profile image61
            Mark Knowlesposted 4 years ago in reply to this

            Really? In that case - you are saying that you are better. My mistake.

            1. Joyus Crynoid profile image87
              Joyus Crynoidposted 4 years ago in reply to this

              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).

              1. Joyus Crynoid profile image87
                Joyus Crynoidposted 4 years ago in reply to this

                Correction, 'you're getting closer'.

  4. Jane Bovary profile image87
    Jane Bovaryposted 4 years ago

    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.

    1. Joyus Crynoid profile image87
      Joyus Crynoidposted 4 years ago in reply to this

      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.

      1. Jane Bovary profile image87
        Jane Bovaryposted 4 years ago in reply to this

        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...smile)

        1. Joyus Crynoid profile image87
          Joyus Crynoidposted 4 years ago in reply to this

          That works for me:)

      2. A Troubled Man profile image62
        A Troubled Manposted 4 years ago in reply to this

        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?

        1. Joyus Crynoid profile image87
          Joyus Crynoidposted 4 years ago in reply to this

          Yes.

          1. A Troubled Man profile image62
            A Troubled Manposted 4 years ago in reply to this

            lol I'll retire to bedlam, then.

            1. Joyus Crynoid profile image87
              Joyus Crynoidposted 4 years ago in reply to this

              Have fun.

  5. conradofontanilla profile image71
    conradofontanillaposted 4 years ago

    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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