Tuesday, April 06, 2010

I Agree With Sam Harris on Science and Morality

Sam Harris has a short talk here on why he thinks "science can answer moral questions."  A follow-up to some initial criticism is here, and a brief discussion of "getting an ought from an is" is here.  He evidently has a book forthcoming related to all this.

While the philosophically more talented will have issues with his arguments (and with my brief discussion of this complex topic below), I agree with his main thrust.  There are two key steps here:  first, we include first-person experiences in our view of nature, and second, we locate the target for our (natural) moral instincts in the qualities of the experiences of sentient creatures.

1.  In assessing the world, we use two perspectives-- the first-person and the third-person.  On the one hand, we feel, think and form values - these are all aspects of first-person experiences;  on the other hand, we work with others to determine agree-upon ("objective") facts.  But there is only one world, not two.  Experiences are ineliminable natural facts:  they are simultaneously facts about a brain/body/environment system (viewed from the other perspective).

Now, it seems the ideal of scientific methodology excludes (or "brackets") first-person experiences, and so whether "Science" is able to assess experiences may be partly a semantic issue. But since  our experiences are part of the natural world, we can explore these in a similar spirit to the conduct of science, even if we fall somewhat short of the traditional ideal (and allowing that there will be practical limits to precision).  For a start, we build on the existing neuroscientific program which looks at the brain/body events which correspond with different experiential events.  I would expect that in the future we can get much more sophisticated and precise compared to the tools used today.

There's just a slight but crucial difference in the stance here from that of a stereotypical materialist worldview:  the experiences are not reduced to physical events:  they are the same events, viewed from different perspectives.  I would challenge the naturalists out there: do you really want to limit your worldview to one which excludes first-person experiences as natural facts?  Doesn't this kind of reductive materialism leave the door open for the persistence of dualisms and supernaturalisms to fill the vacuum?

So, feelings, values, etc. are experiences, and experiences are natural facts.

2.  But what about morals and what we "ought" to do?

Here, I have argued in the past that the intrinsic, qualitative richness of subjective experience is a good, and should be the target of moral judgments.  We should favor the greatest number of high quality, robust, complex and rewarding experiences we can, and minimize low quality, degraded, unpleasant experiences.  Of course this needs to be considered and worked out in great detail -- that's a huge project.  We can work to develop tools to evaluate the presence or absence of the experiences we're targeting.

But even if experiences are facts and good experiences are preferred to bad, why "ought" one pursue moral goals?  Can you get an "ought" from an "is"?  I don't think this question has any bite.  I think the evidence from evolutionary biology shows that our moral impulses are grounded naturally, among other facts about our makeup;  we don't seek special explanations for our other natural impulses (I "is" hungry so I "ought" to eat lunch).  It's part of our nature to seek out the best experience for ourselves, and then to seek it for others.  While there is much more to be said here, too, I think it's clear that extending our circle of concern to encompass all humans and other sentient creatures is just the cultivation of a natural impulse.

So, we should pursue the study of how experiential well-being can be assessed, and use this knowledge to benefit sentient creatures (understanding how difficult and complex an undertaking this is).


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Doru said...

Hi Steve,
I have been following Sam Harris for a while in some of his “anti-religious crusades”. I am trying to be as non-dualistic as possible and use as a general principle the idea that “Nothing has any other meaning than the one you put on it”.
So if a father in Sudan kills his daughter because she was raped, it doesn’t mean anything other than what it means for that father in those specific circumstances.

Steve said...

I'm not sure I follow that, Doru. Harris would argue that we can come to an agreement about the moral value of the action based on the impact on the experiential well-being of those involved (including the community). So it has meaning to us in that sense.

Now, as an aside, I wanted to mention that a number of people are criticizing Harris by coming up with really complicated and difficult moral problems where it would seem impossible to determine their net impact on well-being. This is not an adequate response. Of course moral judgments can be incredibly complex and hard to parse -- this would be true whether they are natural facts or not. He's not saying the insight makes things easy. But it does give us a path forward.

Crude said...

A few comments.

But there is only one world, not two. Experiences are ineliminable natural facts

I suspect some materialists would disagree with this, even if few would be willing to say as much openly. (Though some certainly do.)

There's just a slight but crucial difference in the stance here from that of a stereotypical materialist worldview: the experiences are not reduced to physical events: they are the same events, viewed from different perspectives. I would challenge the naturalists out there: do you really want to limit your worldview to one which excludes first-person experiences as natural facts? Doesn't this kind of reductive materialism leave the door open for the persistence of dualisms and supernaturalisms to fill the vacuum?

For many naturalists (and I think it's clear that materialists are far and away the most numerous 'type' of "naturalists"), what you've done in the above *is* the reintroduction of dualisms and supernaturalisms. Why do you think so much effort has been put into reducing the mind to the material, etc? You're telling naturalists to throw their favored position, favored because it's supposed to be the one "vindicated by science again and again", over the rails for neutral monism. That's costly.

What's more, you're telling them that third-person science is inadequate for what amounts to a political reason. 'Give up materialism, or the dualists will profit!' But giving up materialism would be a tremendous profit for 'those people' as well. And dualism won't go away just because neutral monism is (back) in play. It would likely be emboldened, if we're speaking politically.

It's part of our nature to seek out the best experience for ourselves, and then to seek it for others.

Spoken like Aquinas, or Aristotle. Possibly like Teilhard de Chardin.

I don't think you fully appreciate what this move (which really is a redefinition of science, in a big way) would result in, and I don't think Harris does either. The hope seems to be 'If we make all talk of morals and oughts 'scientific', then we've taken away a major function of religion and philosophy and made it science!' The reality is closer to 'If you make talk of morals and oughts 'scientific', you've given theology the authority of science.'

By all means, make the move. But I say this as a religious person. It's no surprise that the biggest outcry against Harris came from atheists, while numerous religious people are smiling and saying "What an interesting idea..."

Steve said...

Hi and thanks for the thoughtful comments. In particular, you're right to call me out on making political arguments. I don't really want to do that, I'm just frustrated with materialists who don't grapple with what I see to be the inadequacies of the view.

I'm not sure about your last couple of points, though. Do religious people really want to concede that their experiences are natural events, with no explanatory role for eternal souls, etc.?

Crude said...


I agree with the frustration with materialists (I suppose that would go without saying). Incidentally, there was a recent article by a philosopher arguing that Dan Dennett's views, if taken consistently, lead to panpsychism. Have you seen it?

As for your question, you'd have to be more specific. Are you asking me "Why would religious people be encouraged by materialism being abandoned for neutral monism or panpsychism?"?

Steve said...

No, I had not seen the article you refer to -- it sounds interesting.

I guess that was my question (prompted by the "...religious people are smiling...")

What I have in mind is the thought that neutral monism/panexperientialism might be part of a more expansive and robust naturalism which would be a more persuasive alternative to a traditional religious worldviews.

Crude said...

http://www.independent.com/news/2010/feb/23/conscious-or-not-conscious/ is the article in question. Maybe you'll like it.

As for my comment, that was in the context of Harris' discussion - not panpsychism or neutral monism. Harris himself is a materialist through and through last I read.

Re: Naturalism, here's part of my problem: I think there eventually comes a time where one passes from a 'more robust naturalism' to simply 'naturalism defeated'. It's not like "religion" or even "traditional religious views" are in one column, and everything that isn't obviously that goes into the "naturalism" column. It strikes me as mistaken as calling panpsychism materialism (and some people do that, I think to soften what seems like an inevitable blow).

But word choice aside, here's my view: The move to neutral monism, panpsychism, panexperientialism, etc is exactly that: A move. It's a move decisively away from materialism to one which makes mind and the mental a fundamental part of our ontology. The mental is (broadly) no longer some unforeseen accident that just happened to take place here or there, etc, under these views.

That's still far away from, say.. devout Catholicism. But I think it's fair to say there's far more common ground between these views and [traditional?] religion than between the latter and materialism. I like that mostly because I feel dialogue can be had with someone with these views. Christianity (to give a broad example) shares a lot more in common with buddhism than materialism.

But I also refer to the end of the Notre Dame review of Galen Strawson's Consciousness and Its Place In Nature, for another perspective: "Traditional Dualists, rather than the target audience of realistic materialists, may be the ones who will appreciate Strawson's labors the most. For surely the dualist is right to think that if Strawson has shown that the realistic materialist must choose between eliminativism, pure panpsychism, or Spinozistical panpsychism, dualism looks better than ever."

Steve said...

Thanks very much for the link, and for the dialogue.

There are alot of steps between, say, a strict materialist and someone who is a traditional Christian. Acknowledging the fundamental nature of experience is certainly an important one of these - but I guess I don't see it as being as large as some of the other hurdles still standing in the way (which is why I guess my stance is what it is).