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Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Questions of good and evil, right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science. But Sam Harris argues that science can -- and should -- be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life.

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Speaking of "good and evil", anyone else check out the health insurance company stocks today? Up across the board.

Mmmm, mmmm- that's some tasty "reform".

did anyone else pick up on how self important his rhetoric was? he really abused the emotional pauses.

regardless, i feel like his point wasn't that strong. there's an idea that scientists have that they can separate their humanity from their work and become unbiased observers, and some use that perception to cast opinions as more or less informed. but this is sort of a ridiculous proposition. in its purest form, science can only produce measurements. math is not philosophy. i could take the view that empathy towards anything is unscientific as we are really all just a relatively complex series chemical reactions. to suppose therefore that you can decide whether or not pornography is moral or immoral based on science is stretching the role of science.

if he had say, managed to come up with a clever scientific proof for how burkhas are immoral, i might have been more impressed.

I liked his point, that morality can be attacked in a scientific manner.

Science in total only tells us what is possible and certainly a number of scientists have done the immoral because of the wonder they found in its possibility. But we can search for answers scientifically , and really that is what we all do in a very disorganized way. At the base of it is reason and not scientific research. Why we value less suffering and more happiness even when it has no effect on us is a valid question. How much we value the well being of animals is as much about what it means to us as what it means to them.

The emotional pauses were a little odd

Really liked this talk.

Grrr... lost another post because the site says i'm loged in, then tells me I'm not after I click submit. I guess I just need to always sign in and ignore what it's telling me. Anyway, here is the revised version of what I lost....

My reading and watching comprehension may be lacking, but I'm kind of shocked by some of the comments. From what I saw the following points were made:

  1. Values (Morals) can be studied using scientific methods because we have advanced science to a point where we now have some tools that would allow it.

  2. The debate about 'good' values can be enhanced by applying that method.

  3. People can be experts or geniuses on the topic of values.

  4. Working out 'good' universal values should not be solely the work of the religious, but should really be the work of us all.

  5. Defining 'good' values is a continuous process.

The way he add so many 'if', 'maybe', 'possible' and other equivocations to his examples makes them almost useless to any further discussion. Who cares if he’s down on burkas, or thinks something is morally good or bad, his whole point is to not take anyone’s word for it but to start to work out methods to have lists of generally good behavior and generally bad behavior.

Sam Harris is righteous.

I love the talk. It bothers me that he doesn't put something on the crown in front of him. Clothing made in sweatshops or accepting corporate crime for instance. Perhaps not exactly on topic, but without it, it is hard to say whether he is saying replace relativism with western morality or a scientifically persued reduction in human suffering.

I agree that his rhetoric was self-righteous and aggrandizing (maybe even narrow minded), but I don't think his point was that certain practices (burkhas) are completely immoral. I think his argument was (or should have been) more about pointing out peaks and valleys in that "Moral Landscape". So burkhas aren't the "optimal" moral solution for women's bodies, neither is the objectifying on magazine covers. But it should be fair to rate these "solutions" in some kind of moral system so that we can, as a collective, get closer to that "Moral Peak".

Fortunately he's releasing a book about the subject of science and human values some time this year. I loved the TED talk so I am betting the book will be great.

Science will tell us the underlying psychology of morality, the mental processes that determine how we decide what is or isn't ethical. Science will be crucial in helping us achieve what we decide is worth achieving. But the psychology of ethics is no more ethics than linguistics is language. It's a confusion of terms. And it really annoys me.

Science is only the best current information that we have in understanding and manipulating objects in our world. Its application always varies from place to place and it is always susceptible to human bias and error. When we're talking about human subjects (and therefore "morality"), the control variables are less stable and less easy to isolate. This is not to say that scientific approaches aren't important (they are extremely important) but that they must be taken with a grain of salt.

Sam makes some good points, but fails to address how the process of social change on a global level is a highly nuanced beast that must be dealt with carefully. While he makes certain concessions in this regard, it is worth bearing in mind that he supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, I would argue, did this in no small measure because of his myopic view of Islam as a once size fits all religion, instead of a 1400 year + tradition that comprises many different cultures, languages and forms of outward expression and belief. His final comment that drew parallels between veiling and chopping one's gay son's head off is a perfect case in point.

If war is the last refuge of scoundrels, then Sam Harris strikes me as more of a scoundrel than a man driven by warm feelings for his fellow human beings.

His talk seeks conflict with Islam (as par usual), which would be sure to inflict mass human suffering of the type he presumably disdains.

I wonder what the scientific view on that is?

So, does Harris' "science" answer the questions he posed in the beginning:

-what is worth living for? -what is worth dying for? -what constitutes a good life?


He continues: "values [...] are facts about the wellbeings of conscious creatures. Why is it we do not have ethical obligations towards rocks? [...] [B]ecause they have a greater range of suffering."

Who, exactly, are we? Do we, as humanity, share that feeling? Does that mean that shintoists are not human beings? Does it mean that buddhists who accept suffering are not human beings? Does it mean that any human being who happens to disagree on the foundation of ethics (like Kant) are nothuman beings?

I think not.

"Even if you get your values from religion[...] you are still concerned with consciousness and its changes."

No. Most religions think that life after death is a by-effect rather than a goal of living a good life. The real goal (they think) is serving God(s).

"There are truths about how human societies flourish..."

What exactly flourishing entails is a subject of debate.

Too bad Harris does not have the faintest idea what he is talking about.

So, does Harris' "science" answer the questions he posed in the beginning: -what is worth living for? -what is worth dying for? -what constitutes a good life? No

So for you to take Sam seriously, science must already have answered this question? Do you not take science as a whole seriously because of its inevitable incompleteness?

He's essentially talking about normative ethics; this, like any ethical principle leads to nonsensical answers, when taken to extremes, E.g.: Long miserable life versus short happy life.

A more apt example: It could be argued that the a society ruled by the Taliban is more ethical than modern democratic western society: It will newer lead to the invention of the atomic bombs and will never give rise to the technological innovations needed to sustain large populations. On it's own it will only be able support a modest-sized populations in a pre-industrial setting. Thus the total suffering over time will likely never be as high as that caused by billions being wiped out in a nuclear holocaust. Conversely taliban society could remain unchanged for millenia, it's modest population never giving rise to resource scarcities; The total summarized happiness being huge (although individual portioning is likely to be small).

Though I am generally a fan. Harris is making the elementary philosophical mistake of thinking you can derive an ought from an is. That is an argument with a normative conclusion will have at least one normative premise. Science can certain play an important role in informing our moral inquiry, but it cannot get us any moral conclusion on its own. For example, lots of recent research has been done on the possibility that we have some kind of innate moral sense. Suppose it turns out that is true. We still need a normative claim like, one ought to act consistently with one's moral sense. We certainly don't want to act on all our instincts in every case. So we need a normative principle to decide which innate tendencies to act in accordance with and which to resist. I don't see science giving us answers to those questions. That is not to say that I then advocate a religious solution to this problem. I think that has problems of its own.


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