Blog Archives

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.

 

Advertisements

Sam Harris Awarding Money To Anyone Who Refutes His Thesis That’s Already Been Refuted Since 1739.

Sam 2

Money, and, perhaps, fame, to the one who refutes, to Sam’s satisfaction, his contention that Science can determine moral values.

Really; Sam’s giving 2 thousand dollars to the winning essay — and, interestingly, 20 thousand dollars (inclusive of the matching pledge of one of his generous readers) to the essay that succeeds in changing his mind. Needless to say, changing his mind, or at least getting him to admit his mind had been changed, would be considerably more difficult then actually refuting his thesis — something which had been, as it were, refuted since 1739.

A few months ago, I entertained the thought of submitting one. The effort to do so, however, eventually seemed of scant worth, considering what would presumably be a large number of submissions unequivocally harping on the very argument I intended to make — indeed, the same argument, I think, everyone’s been making — against Sam’s thouroughly absurd thesis.

Sam is wrong; science does not — cannot ever — have the ability to determine moral values for precisely the reasons laid out by David Hume more than 200 years ago in A Treatise Of Human Nature.:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”

Or, in short, Mr. Hume, in a rather overly verbose manner (as chaps of his time were wont to conduct themselves) is simply saying that one cannot derive an ought from an is; you cannot infer what ought to be from what is; or, if you like: since science merely describes what is, then it can hardly be able to tell us what ought to be.

Of course, that, above, should have been the whole story. Sadly, it isn’t for Harris.

Surprisingly competently, Sam realizes that moral goodness is a concept so amorphous as to be indeterminable (after all, people can’t always agree on what is good) so he substitutes (human) ‘well-being’ for ‘good’ because — or so we are told by him — ‘well-being’ as a metric succeeds in doing two things that can seemingly bridge Hume’s famous (or perhaps infamous) is-ought chasm: 1, it is something for which there can in principle be an objective unit of measurement, and 2, it proffers to actions a goal or purpose.

The obvious problem here is that well-being is, contrary to Sam’s claims, rather like moral goodness in that it is also objectively indeterminable. I mean, what is it? Sam simply puts the problem another step back, actually. How can we all even agree on what ‘well-being’ is?
Dahmer’s well-being, for instance, was predicated on the sodomization of young boys’ corpses. What would Sam’s answer be to this, one wonders. Dahmer was wrong because sodomizing corpses can hardly be said to add to someone’s well-being? But yes it can — people like Dahmer exist. Sure, we can cheerily rejoice in the fact that more people are of the opinion that sodomizing corpses reduces rather than increases ones well-being. But, on naturalism, that’s just an opinion, really — one that is, luckily, ascendant in society, but one that is an opinion no less.

Of course, Sam will argue that humans have evolved in such and such a way that makes us repelled by the sight of corpses, and therefore moreso with the prospect of having sex with them, making our collective anti corpse-sodomizing sentiments not merely an opinion but one for which a socio-biological component exists. Of course he’ll think this socio-biological underpinning furnishes us with a standard against which the morality of actions can be measured. But he’ll be wrong; for one can simply say that Dahmer was being unfashionable, or that Dahmer simply chose not to go with the flow, so to speak.

Swrong with that?

What, on naturalism, makes Sam able to say: “No, sodomizing corpses, bad!”, “Yes, well-being, good!”

Nothing, it seems.

Of course, this all poses zero problems for the theist who holds God to be good’s ontological base. After all, if the Christian God exists, then the universe was imbued with ‘oughts’ upon its very creation. Therefore theism furnishes us with a solid foundation for moral values and duties, while atheism, not so much.