Masimmo Pigliucci, philosopher and blogger, has taken it upon himself to criticize Sam Harris's TED talk and throw in some swipes at Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne while he's at it.
Well, I would have blogged about it anyway, since I loved Harris's TED talk and am writing a book about pretty much the same thing as Harris's book and trying to surf the same philosophical wave. But you swipe and Dawkins and Coyne too? Now it's on. THIS... IS... THE ATHEIST BLOGOSPHERE!
Here goes, point-by-point refutations of everything Pigliucci said.
The buzz in secular circles lately has been about a TED talk by Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation. The title of Harris’ talk is “Science can answer moral questions,” and you just know that as a former scientist and currently a philosopher, I simply have to comment on it.Well, no, it wasn't a logical necessity or even a moral imperative, but sure, let's hear what you have to say about it.
As it turns out, there is much that Harris and I agree on, but I think his main target is actually moral relativism, and that he would get more mileage out of allying himself with philosophy (not to the exclusion of science), rather than taking what appears to be the same misguided scientistic attitude that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have come to embody so well.1) Yes, the target is moral relativism. Also anti-realism. Your point? 2) Sam Harris not against philosophy. He uses philosophy all the time, as do we all. When Harris says "science", he means broadly "reason and evidence", not narrowly "quantum physics". 3) In fact, pretty much everyone does this, a fortiori me, Dawkins, and Coyne. 4) "scientism" is a silly word for a philosophy everyone should agree on, namely: if you want to know things, use reason and evidence.
Harris begins with a rather startling claim: “The separation between science and human values is an illusion,” adding “facts and values seem to belong to different spheres [but] This is quite clearly untrue. Values are a certain kind of facts. They are facts about the well beings of conscious creatures.” This is a frontal assault on what in philosophy is known as the naturalistic fallacy, the idea — introduced by David Hume — that one cannot directly derive values (what ought to be) from facts (what is).Harris explicitly admits this. What's more, I'm convinced he's absolutely right. The ought-is problem (not the same as the naturalistic fallacy, by the way; what kind of philosopher are you?) is not really very problematic at all. I'm devoting a chapter to showing exactly that, and I'll bet Harris is too.
Harris justifies his position by asking his audience to consider under what circumstances we feel that we have moral obligations: “Why is it that we don’t have ethical obligations toward rocks? ... Because we don’t think that rocks can suffer. ... [talking then about insects having a very limited inner life] This is a factual claim, this is something we could be right or wrong about.” He continues: “If culture changes us, it changes us by changing our brains. And therefore whatever cultural variation there is in the way human beings flourish can at least in principle be understood in the context of a maturing science of the mind,” implying that neurobiology — the field in which he is getting a doctoral degree — will soon be the key to moral discourse.Actually, that's a point taken. Harris does seem to talk a bit too much about "a science of the mind", when in fact most moral knowledge is best gained through a science of society, things like economics, political science, and sociology. Neuroscience is surely relevant to morality, but it doesn't get us as far as Harris sometimes seems to suggest. Maybe he overemphasizes neuroscience, in fact, because it's his field (but then, it's my field too, and I don't).
Harris then introduces the idea of a “moral landscape” describing the sort of ethical decisions that further or hinder human wellbeing, and just couldn’t help himself sneaking in some mystical fluff (he has a weak spot for Buddhism and transcendental meditation), suggesting that perhaps one way to access the structure of the moral landscape is by way of mystical experiences. Whatever.Also a point taken. Harris loves meditation, and it's not clear why. Meditation makes you feel good; it doesn't actually make you a better person or a more knowledgeable rational being. Susan Blackmore put it well: Studying the mind through meditation is like studying refrigerators by opening and closing the door to see if the light goes out.
Let me start my commentary by pointing out that I do agree with Harris’ criticism of moral relativism, for much the same reasons that he advances. However, Harris must be living in a semi-parallel universe if he is convinced that “most Western intellectuals” have no problem with burkas, female genital mutilation, beheadings of “blasphemers” and the like. Perhaps a small number of hyper-politically correct and culturally neutral postmodern cuckoos do subscribe to that notion, but it is hardly “the position, generally speaking, of our intellectual community.”Maybe not the majority as Harris suggests, but hardly a tiny fringe either! Stanley Fish comes to mind, as does my own professor George Hoffmann, and all the people he makes us read, like Marshall Sahlins, Webb Keane, Lee Schlesinger, Ashis Nandy... I bet you could go through a directory of sociologists and anthropologists and find about 70% agreed with these "cuckoos".
This seems to be a more general phenomenon among smart people: They can't seem to see just how crazy most people are. "Only some radical fringe believes the Earth is 6000 years old!" You mean that "radical fringe" of 40% of the US population? "Just a few cuckoos think moral relativism is right!" You mean the "cuckoos" of the entire field of cultural anthropology? Yes, people are that crazy. I wish it were not so, but it won't go away just by your denial.
The analogy between physical health and wellbeing, or flourishing (a term borrowed from the philosophical tradition of virtue ethics, which traces back to Aristotle) is convincing, but not new: it is exactly the way neo-Aristotelian philosophers defend the idea that although the notion of flourishing is complex and multifarious, it is not in fact either arbitrary or useless. The same goes for Harris’ argument that even if there are multiple peaks on the “moral landscape” that does not preclude developing an objective notion of morality. Again, this is an argument well known in moral philosophy.The argument is old... so what? Therefore it doesn't work? It isn't true? Harris could just as well say "David Hume is long dead" as a dismissal of the ought-is problem. Most people in the world (and indeed probably most people at that TED talk) have never heard this argument, and it's a damn good argument, worth hearing; so what's wrong with Harris saying it? In fact, the "peaks on a moral landscape" can't be that old, since differential calculus and the study of fitness landscapes are themselves only a couple centuries old.
Where I begin to diverge from Harris is when he talks about moral propositions as a particular kind of empirical facts. First off, as I pointed out before on this blog, to say that something is objectively true is not the same as to say that it is a fact, an equivalence strangely implied by Harris’ talk. There clearly are notions that are objectively true — such as mathematical theorems — but that in no meaningful sense are “facts.”Dr. Pigliucci, please do not masturbate in public. I'm sure your own pet ontology does not allow that "the Pythagorean Theorem is true" is a fact, and within epistemological circles, in which "fact" has a very circumscribed and specific meaning, that might well be a thing worth talking about. Maybe there is no "truthmaker" for the claim "genocide is wrong". But in the rest of the world, when people use the word "fact", they mean "objective truth"; the two noun phrases are interchangeable in English, such that I can say, "the fact that the Pythagorean is true can be derived from the fact that Euclidean space is flat" or some such and be fully understood. I can say "it is the case that 2+2=4" without implying any weird ontology of possible worlds of mathematics. I am not asserting the existence of some mysterious truthmaker of mathematics by speaking this way.
See also Dictionary.com:
Harris does not have to abide by your particular definition of the word "fact" in order for his arguments to make sense; indeed, if he in fact (wink) did so, he'd probably confuse his audience.fact. n.1. something that actually exists; reality; truth: Your fears have no basis in fact.2. something known to exist or to have happened: Space travel is now a fact.3. a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true: Scientists gather facts about plant growth.4. something said to be true or supposed to have happened: The facts given by the witness are highly questionable.
Also, for a notion to be objectively true does not mean that said notion is also universal: morality applies only to human beings and other relevantly self-aware social beings, not to rocks, plants, ants, or other solar systems (unless they are inhabited by self-aware social beings), although on this latter point Harris seems to agree with me.Yes, he does; so why did you bring it up?
The crux of the disagreement, then, is embodied in the title of Harris' talk: in what sense can science answer (as opposed to inform) ethical questions? Let me take one of Harris’ examples, the (highly questionable) legality of corporal punishment of children in several US States. Harris rhetorically asks whether we really think that hitting children will improve their school performance or good behavior. But that isn’t the point at all. What if it did? What if a scientific study showed that indeed, hitting children does have a measurable effect on improving those desirable traits? Harris would then have to concede that corporal punishment is moral, but somehow I doubt he would. And I certainly wouldn’t, because my moral intuition (yes, that’s what I’m going to call it, deal with it) tells me that purposefully inflicting pain on children is wrong, regardless of whatever the empirical evidence says.Well, you just disagreed with Harris... by making no sense whatsoever. If hitting disobedient children really did have long-term beneficial consequences that outweighed any physical or psychological damage it caused, then hitting disobedient children would in fact be perfectly justified. Indeed, if you ask someone who engages in this behavior why they do it, they will attempt to justify it in precisely these terms. They will not say "I have a moral intuition that this is all right" or "it's just my ineffable moral faculty at work"; they would say, "it'll shape him up; he'll be a better man later". They might say "my daddy did it to me and I turned out fine!" which also has elements of traditionalism and authoritarianism, but it also contains a grain of scientific claim in that "I turned out fine".
In fact, we do things to children all the time that cause them temporary pain and suffering, but we do these things precisely because we think the long-term benefits are worthwhile. No kid likes getting a shot, but surely we prefer giving them shots to letting them catch polio? Most kids hate going to school, but don't we all agree that in the long run society is better off if kids go to school?
We can now turn to the wearing of burkas, another issue where Harris and I agree on the substance (it is wrong to force women to “live in cloth bags”), but for different reasons. My position is that I think it immoral for a society to impose that degree of restriction on individual choices (a restriction that, as Harris points out, is backed up by the threat of force and even of capital punishment). That is because as a philosopher inclined towards virtue ethics I think individual and societal flourishing ought to be interconnected in a positive way, not in the negative one implemented in so many Muslim societies.And what if they aren't? How do you resolve that conflict? Do you throw up your hands, or do you use some measure of overall welfare? If the latter... how is that different from Harris?
But Harris has to justify why he poses individual women’s wellbeing ahead of societal wellbeing, or even of the wellbeing of the families (and especially the males) of those women. Again, what if an empirical study were to show that — on balance — societies with restrictive rules about women’s attire and behavior flourish better, qua societies, than their more liberal counterparts in the West? Would that make forcing women to wear burkas morally right? I don’t think so.No, Harris merely has to justify why he poses individual women's wellbeing at equal standing with every other individual human's wellbeing, which he further can do on the basis that they are neurologically equivalent. If it really were the case that burqa-demanding societies overall had more happiness and flourishing overall, then, yes, it would be justifiable to require burqas. Harris's point is precisely that this is obviously not the case.
Once again, we actually do this---in requiring that people wear clothes in public, in requiring that people refrain from stealing, in requiring that people drive on the right side of the road and not the left. Society makes rules that restrict individual freedom to benefit everyone in the long run. You can dispute the justness of any particular rule, but it seems to me that you'll be doing so on the grounds that it hurts freedom too much or that it doesn't help societal welfare enough; you can't possibly be disputing the general claim that restricting individual freedom is justified in promoting societal welfare. If you did, well, I'd punch you in the face, because that's my individual freedom, right?
These examples could be joined by many others making the same point: if we let empirical facts decide what is right and what is wrong, then new scientific findings may very well “demonstrate” that things like slavery, corporal punishment, repression of gays, limited freedom of women, and so on, are “better” and therefore more moral than liberal-progressive types such as Harris and myself would be ready to concede. The difference is that I wouldn’t have a problem rejecting such findings — just as I don’t have a problem condemning social Darwinism and eugenics — but Harris would find himself in a bind.Once again, what a stupid argument. Yes, some kind of scientific facts could refute these norms---but what bizarre and unlikely facts they would be!
In order to show that slavery is justified, you would need to show that African people are either mindless robots with no conscious experience, or at least that they are beings of no more cognitive complexity than dogs and other working animals. (And even then, I'm not sure the way we treat working animals is justified.) Indeed, we currently "enslave'' robots on a massive scale; if we were to discover that automated factories or combat drones (for instance) have conscious experience, I would be the first to demand that they be given rights, and Harris might well be the second.
In order to show that corporal punishment is good, you would need to show that it is more effective than other forms of punishment and does not cause disproportionate physical or psychological harm. (Actually this could conceivably happen; see above.) To show that repression of gays is good, you would need to demonstrate some substantial social harm, worse than the repression of fundamental urges itself, that homosexuality causes; furthermore you would need to show that this harm would be prevented by repressing homosexuality and could not possibly be prevented without such repression. To show that women should not have the same rights as men, you would need to show that women are cognitively comparable to cats and dogs.
All of these (with the exception of corporal punishment) are such incredibly ridiculous scientific claims that they were not worthy of a moment's notice 2000 years ago, much less today. That's exactly Harris's point: We can justify these norms because the facts that motivate them are so strongly demonstrated. It has nothing to do with some magical "moral intuition".
Indeed, he seems to be making a categorical mistake: what he calls values are instead empirical facts about how to achieve human wellbeing. But why value individual human wellbeing, or the wellbeing of self-aware organisms, to begin with? Facts are irrelevant to that question.All right, that's a somewhat trickier question, getting closer to meta-ethics. But does anyone seriously contend that we should value the welfare of Saturn's rings more than the welfare of a human child? It seems like we're pretty much all in agreement that the welfare of human beings is extremely important, and that this has quite a lot to do with the fact that human beings have thoughts and feelings. You're right that we do need to ultimately justify these fundamental bases for our ethical claims (and one thing I'm struggling with in writing my book is doing just that); but once you have this norm in place, everything else follows from the facts. The quintessentially moral premise is very early in the argument; we have no need of moral intuitions to decide specific matters, for the specific follows directly from the general. (Or do you dispute that claim, and secretly harbor a love of the non-codifiability thesis?)
Of course, I am in complete agreement that our sense of morality is an instinct that derives from our biological history, and that our moral reasoning is carried out by certain areas of the brain. But neither of these conclusions make evolutionary biology or neurobiology arbiters of moral decision making. Of course we do moral reasoning with the brain, just like we solve mathematical problems with the brain.Yes, that would indeed be silly. But Im pretty sure that isn't what Harris is saying, and it's definitely not what I'm saying.
Is Harris going to suggest that neurobiology will supersede mathematics?Strawman much?
Of course our basic sense of morality has its roots in having evolved as social primates, but so do xenophobia, homophobia, and a bunch of other human characteristics that are not moral and that we don’t want to encourage.Again, I don't think we disagree on this.
So, how do we ground moral reasoning? This is the province of a whole area of inquiry known as metaethics, and I suggest that Harris would benefit from reading about it. Ultimately, ethics is a way of thinking about the human (and other relevantly similar organisms) condition. Just as we don’t need a good answer to the question of where mathematics comes from to engage in mathematical reasoning, so it is not very productive to keep asking philosophers for “the ultimate foundations” of what they do (if this sounds like an easy way out to you, remember that neither math nor science itself have self-justifiable foundations).Well, maybe... but actually I think the epistemic bootstrapping of math and science is pretty damn good; it's pretty much impossible to deny the basic axioms of logic, and it's provable that any rational account of anything requires sensory observation, and math is logic plus definition, and science is just logic plus observation... so I really don't see a big problem here. In fact I think this is precisely why a scientific account of morality is appealing; we know that science works, so we'd like to use it on morality, which we know is important.
In fact, your meta-ethical position is moral realism, right? So is ours. So, uh... why do we need to read up more on the subject, if we already agree with you on it?
A much more productive line of inquiry, it seems to me, is to combine the best of what both philosophy and science can offer in our struggle to make our world as just and moral as possible.Yes. That's what we're trying to do. And you're yelling at us for reining in on your precious territory. No, it's not science! It's philosophy! (And the difference is...?) Away with you! Heathen! Heretic! Blasphemer! Keep your laboratories away from my precious speculations!