Thoughts On Sam Harris’s Response To Ryan Born.

Moral Landscape



So, Sam invited people, offered a significant amount of cash even, to refute his thesis that science can determine moral values — a thesis which, as I’ve said before, had already been refuted since 1739. But when it’s again been seemingly refuted (by a one Ryan Born), Sam responds by cupping both ears with his hands while shouting “LALALALALA!”

I won’t bother going through each of Sam’s points as I feel it would suffice to point out where I think he makes his most fundamental error.

Responding to Ryan, Sam writes:

“Ryan wrote that my “proposed science of morality cannot offer scientific answers to questions of morality and value, because it cannot derive moral judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world.” But no branch of science can derive its judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world. We have intuitions of truth and falsity, logical consistency, and causality that are foundational to our thinking about anything. Certain of these intuitions can be used to trump others: We may think, for instance, that our expectations of cause and effect could be routinely violated by reality at large, and that apes like ourselves may simply be unequipped to understand what is really going on in the universe. That is a perfectly cogent idea, even though it seems to make a mockery of most of our other ideas. But the fact is that all forms of scientific inquiry pull themselves up by some intuitive bootstraps.[..] Some intuitions are truly basic to our thinking. I claim that the conviction that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided is among them.”

Here Sam argues that the intuition that “the worst possible misery for everyone.. should be avoided at all costs” should be assumed — indeed, he seems to say that we are justified in assuming it — in the same manner that we assume the laws of logic, the principle of causality, and other such foundational beliefs with which other outlying beliefs are bootstrapped.

The problem here is: on what basis is he even able to say this?

Why should anyone think that ‘maximizing well-being’, say, is an assumption as valid as the assumption that P cannot be equal to not-P? Or, why is the proposition that ‘we ought to avoid misery for the maximum amount of people’ no different from the proposition that ‘If p then q; p; therefore q’? Or, going with the principle of causality, why should we believe we ought to maximize well-being just as we should believe that throwing a brick through a glass window would result in the window shattering?

Can someone really tell Dahmer that something like modal logic dictates that he ought not eat and sodomize corpses, all while successfully avoiding sounding like some vacuous imbecile?

I seriously doubt that whatever Sam’s answer to the above will — can ever plausibly — amount to more than something like ‘because it just looks reasonable!‘ or ‘it feels right!‘ (Maybe that’s not what he argues, but he has not really clarified this — plus there doesn’t really seem to be any alternative to alluding to what one feels is right on this matter.)

But we don’t assume, say, the laws of logic because it’s reasonable or it feels right to do so. Rather we assume it because it is something without which reason itself cannot even begin to exist. The same with the principle of causality. We can either assume these to be true, or we can assume anything and everything to be true. The latter would make reasoning itself impossible, hence we must assume them (laws of logic, causality) to even begin to reason. But why should we immediately assume that we ‘ought to maximize well-being’ wholly on account of our feeling that it sounds reasonable?

In other words: yes, we really must assume the laws of logic and the principle of causality to even begin to reason. While, no, it’s only Sam’s opinion that, given (or despite of) naturalism, we must assume that  ‘we ought to maximize well-being’.  Lumping together both those assumptions as though they were equally valid is, yet again, another display of inimitable incoherence on Sam’s part.

The fact of the matter is that Sam, as a naturalist, believes morality to be simply a biological spin-off of evolutionary pressures. So how therefore can he possibly believe that there exists determinate facts of the matter regarding what people ought to do? If the things we feel we ought to do are merely what a blind evolutionary history had built into us to make our species flourish on the aggregate, then they cannot be anything but illusory. We may think ‘maximizing well-being’ is reasonable, but that’s only because we’ve fallen for the illusion fashioned for us by evolution. Killing for fun, say, cannot really be wrong on this view — we merely think it to be because if we didn’t then we wouldn’t have survived this long as a species. In the same manner, if descendants of the Tiktaalik roseae, a genus of early land-walking fish, did not evolve lungs to use oxygen to survive, then in the ocean as a fish species we would have remained.

If are we to believe that we ‘ought to maximize well-being’ on account of the fact that that’s what we’ve evolved to believe (for how else can we acquire foundational beliefs of this kind on naturalism), then we are likewise compelled to believe that as far as our early fish ancestors were concerned, they ought to have done whatever it is that precipitated their eventual anatomical evolution towards being land vertebrae, which is, needless to say, absurd.



Posted on June 11, 2014, in philosophy, science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. One point to be considered is that, without disregarding the facts and thoughts you have presented, we humans are now able to identify what is more right for us both as individuals and as society.
    It is as simple as: how would you like to proceed if the opportunity to design society were given to you? or at least to influence others through reason (without imposition). Wouldn’t you like to have the best practices implemented to have everybody’s rights and space respected?
    We are here because of how our planet and evolution happened to develop. Why not to simple use our brains?

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