Sunday, May 23, 2010
SAM HARRIS-YOU'RE WRONG!
There is no such thing as objective science. If physics has taught us anything, it is that the observer and the observed are one. The idea that science can find an objective morality is, by its very nature, an oxymoron. Science is based upon "knowledge,knowledge requires a learner and a learner cannot be objective. Sam Harris would like us to believe that science can lead us to the promise land of well-being. That, while religion and all of its worn out dogma has failed to do so, a new religion of science will show us how to create a land of milk and honey. While I agree with his assessment of religion, his solution is just as inappropriate. In a response to his critics, Sam Harris tried to clarify his position. What follows are parts of his response as posted on his site and my comments are in bold.
Last month, I had the privilege of speaking at the 2010 TED conference for exactly 18 minutes. I was not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of “morality.” Nor was I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. Both of these would have been quite banal claims to make (unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution or the mind’s dependency on the brain). Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. There is an obvious bias in the preceding statements. The notion that science can tell people what they ‘should’ do or should not do indicates simply another form of dogma that has been found not to work by religions. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind. As the response to my TED talk indicates, it is taboo for a scientist to think such things, much less say them public. While there is no doubt that it is appropriate for scientists to discuss such issues, the notion that there are right and wrong answers is a matter of judgment and subjective bias. What is the difference between science telling people what is wrong and the Church, any church, telling people what is right or wrong? Actually, the notion that there is right or wrong, good and evil, flies in the face of science. There are certainly positive and negative forces. But calling hot right and cold wrong is ludicrous. Despite the influence of religion on the issue, calling murder wrong is a moral judgment.
Some of my critics got off the train before it even left the station, by defining “science” in exceedingly narrow terms. Many think that science is synonymous with mathematical modeling, or with immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn. There are many tools one must get in hand to think scientifically—ideas about cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc.—and many come long before one starts worrying about mathematical models or specific data. Clearly, from the above definition, i.e. “our best effort to understand,” is not objective. History is replete with our misunderstanding of science and the fire pits are filled with the charred memories of those who defied our ‘best efforts.”
There is also much confusion about what it means to speak with scientific “objectivity.” As the philosopher John Searle once pointed out, there are two very different senses of the terms “objective” and “subjective.” The first relates to how we know (i.e. epistemology), the second to what there is to know (i.e. ontology). When we say that we are reasoning or speaking “objectively,” we mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counter-arguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, etc. There is no impediment to our doing this with regard to subjective (i.e. third-person) facts. It is, for instance, true to say that I am experiencing tinnitus (ringing in my ears) at this moment. This is a subjective fact about me. I am not lying about it. I have been to an otologist and had the associated hearing loss in the upper frequencies in my right ear confirmed. There is simply no question that I can speak about my tinnitus in the spirit of scientific objectivity. And, no doubt, this experience must have some objective (third-person) correlates, like damage to my cochlea. Many people seem to think that because moral facts relate entirely to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologically “subjective”), all talk of morality must be “subjective” in the epistemological sense (i.e. biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue. Sorry, Sam, but it is true. While on its face, it is easy to understand why one would claim that five birds just flew by; it is raining; I just stubbed my toe, etc. Reality is only our perceptions. And, I suppose you can also say that quantum physics is also all wrong, too, but that just makes you as dogmatic as those you criticize.
Many of my critics also fail to distinguish between there being no answers in practice and no answers in principle to certain questions about the nature of reality. Only the latter questions are “unscientific,” and there are countless facts to be known in principle that we will never know in practice. Exactly how many birds are in flight over the surface of the earth at this instant? What is their combined weight in grams? We cannot possibly answer such questions, but they have simple, numerical answers. Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally? For instance, how seriously should we take the claim that there are exactly 23,000 birds in flight at this moment, and, as they are all hummingbirds weighing exactly 2 grams, their total weight is 46,000 grams? It should be obvious that this is a ridiculous assertion. We can, therefore, decisively reject answers to questions that we cannot possibly answer in practice. This is a perfectly reasonable, scientific, and often necessary thing to do. And yet, many scientists will say that moral truths do not exist, simply because certain facts about human experience cannot be readily known, or may never be known. As I hope to show, this blind spot has created tremendous confusion about the relationship between human knowledge and human values. Is it really possible for what science says is a finite mind to know and understand the infinite? Or, is it possible that we see the mind as finite because we define ourselves by it. Since it weighs x grams there is no way it can carry the infinite knowledge of the universe. Or, is it possible that we are not at limited by the size of our brain and that there is transcendent knowledge that we can know?
When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal wellbeing that we can, in principle, know—simply because wellbeing (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world. Facts are merely our ‘best understanding’ at any given moment. Many facts of the past were clearly not. Is it the states of the brain that laws relate to or something bigger? Are there even really any laws. Can we test a law an infinite number of times to see if it ever deviates? Has not quantum mechanics shown that what we have held as physical laws are not true at the sub-atomic level? And have not recent experiments shown, as mystics have known all along, that such deviations to laws can now be demonstrated at the physically observable level?
And here is where the real controversy begins: for many people strongly objected to my claim that values (and hence morality) relate to facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. My critics seem to think that consciousness and its states hold no special place where values are concerned, or that any state of consciousness stands the same chance of being valued as any other. While maximizing the wellbeing of conscious creatures may be what I value, other people are perfectly free to define their values differently, and there will be no rational or scientific basis to argue with them. This is perhaps the one place where Sam Harris is correct, i.e., what we value does relate to well being of consciousness. However, we should not assume a value on levels of consciousness.
Carroll appears to be confused about the foundations of human knowledge. For instance, he clearly misunderstands the relationship between scientific truth and scientific consensus. He imagines that scientific consensus signifies the existence of scientific truth (while scientific controversy just means that there is more work to be done). And yet, he takes moral controversy to mean that there is no such thing as moral truth (while moral consensus just means that people are deeply conditioned for certain preferences). This is a double standard that I pointed out in my talk, and it clearly rigs the game against moral truth. The deeper issue, however, is that truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: It is, after all, quite possible for everyone to be wrong, or for one lone person to be right. Consensus is surely a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true. There seems to be confusion all around since there really is no current scientific truth.
There are many things wrong with this approach. The deepest problem is that it strikes me as patently mistaken about the nature of reality and about what we can reasonably mean by words like “good,” “bad,” “right,” and “wrong.” In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What’s the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.” Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here’s the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is—again, by definition—the least interesting thing in the universe. Therefore, in order to place a moral value against killing, all must kill-otherwise; the value of not killing has nothing to do with actual/potential experience. Does the value precede the experience or vice versa?
So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already far too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of values does not appear to me to be an arbitrary starting point.
Now that we have consciousness on the table, my further claim is that wellbeing is what we can intelligibly value—and “morality” (whatever people’s associations with this term happen to be) really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the wellbeing of conscious creatures. And, as I pointed out at TED, all the people who claim to have alternative sources of morality (like the Word of God) are, in every case that I am aware of, only concerned about wellbeing anyway: They just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell). And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the wellbeing of conscious creatures—are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of wellbeing in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I’ve read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit). The doubts that immediately erupt on this point seem to invariably depend on extremely unimaginative ideas about what the term “wellbeing” could mean, altogether, or on mistaken beliefs about what science is.
Those who assumed that any emphasis on human “wellbeing” would lead us to enslave half of humanity, or harvest the organs of the bottom ten percent, or nuke the developing world, or nurture our children a continuous drip of heroin are, it seems to me, not really thinking about these issues seriously. It seems rather obvious that fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality have rather a lot to do with our creating a thriving global civilization (Creating a thriving global community is not desired by all and not really a value, a goal perhaps, but not a value)—and, therefore, with the greater wellbeing of humanity. And, as I emphasized in my talk, there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive—many peaks on the moral landscape—so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in life, this diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science. As I said in my talk, the concept of “wellbeing,” like the concept of “health,” is truly open for revision and discovery. Just how happy is it possible for us to be, personally and collectively? What are the conditions—ranging from changes in the genome to changes in economic systems—that will produce such happiness? We simply do not know.
But the deeper objection raised by scientists like Carroll is that the link I have drawn between values and wellbeing seems arbitrary, or otherwise in need of justification. What if certain people insist that their “values” or “morality” have nothing to do with wellbeing? What if a man like Jefferey Dahmer says, “The only peaks on the moral landscape that interest me are ones where I get to murder young men and have sex with their corpses.” This possibility—the prospect of radically different moral preferences—seems to be at the heart of many people’s concerns. In response to one of his readers, Carroll writes:
[W]e have to distinguish between choosing a goal and choosing the best way to get there. But when we do science we all basically agree on what the goals are — we want to find a concise, powerful explanation of the empirical facts we observe. This is not true. The idyllic notion here is that all scientists are purists who only seek to discover how the universe works. It assumes no hidden or subjective agenda. While it is fine to argue that a person on a spiritual quest for meaning and truth is really just seeking new dogma to impose on humanity, this cannot be true for the scientist. Clearly, the use of science to further specific political, social, economic or religious goals can be demonstrated throughout history. Again, is there really empirical fact? Sure, someone can choose to disagree with those goals — but then they’re not doing science, they’re doing philosophy of science. Which is interesting in its own right, but not the same thing.
When it comes to morality, there is nowhere near the unanimity of goals that there is in science. That’s not a minor quibble, that’s the crucial difference! If we all agreed on the goals, we would indeed expend our intellectual effort on the well-grounded program of figuring out how best to achieve those goals. That would be great, but it’s not the world in which we live.
Again, we encounter this confusion about the significance of consensus. But we should also remember that there are trained “scientists” who are Biblical Creationists, and their scientific thinking is purposed not toward a dispassionate study of the universe, but toward interpreting the data of science to fit the Biblical account of creation. Such people claim to be doing “science,” of course—but real scientists are free, and indeed obligated, to point out that they are misusing the term. A real scientist? Does that exist? How can you base a system on an imaginary ‘real scientist’? Certainly, a person with a religious agenda cannot conduct this so called pure science. But neither can the mythical real scientist, who, unless they grew up with no human interaction, be free of any bias. Similarly, there are people who claim to be highly concerned about “morality” and “human values,” but when we see that they are more concerned about condom use than they are about child rape (e.g. the Catholic Church), we should feel free to say that they are misusing the term “morality,” or that their values are distorted. As I asked at TED, how have we convinced ourselves that on the subject of morality, all views must count equally? It is clear that Harris cannot make his arguments without reverting to moral judgment.
The very idea that a morality exists has not come from science. To say that women should not be degraded, people should not be enslaved, that there should be no war, did not stem from some scientific observation. To even say that there should be an objective morality is, of itself, a subjective moral judgment. What might nature tell us about morality. Survival of the fittest? No room for the weak? Only cooperate if your own well-being is enhanced? In nature, there are animals that herd together for mutual protection. There are also lone hunters, hives, colonies, predator and prey. Would not objective science say that it makes no sense for the genetically weak or defective to survive? In nature, the weak and deformed are left behind. Why would science make an argument for weakening the gene pool and promote the perpetuation of the "defective?" It is not science that has said that the likes of Steven Hawking should survive. Make no mistake, religion has not provided the answer, but within religion has been pearls of wisdom that form the fundamentals of a working morality. I will continue with Sam's talk on TED in Part II.
Let me leave you with some quotes from a real scientist, Albert Einstein:
"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."
"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
"As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."
END PART I