Monday, May 10, 2010

Morality: Not Natural or Supernatural?

Sean M. Carroll, the Caltech cosmologist who blogs at Cosmic Variance, has had a couple of posts responding to Sam Harris’ recent arguments that we should be able to develop a science of morality (he doesn't think this is possible in principle, although his reasoning reads to me as a list of challenges about the practical difficulty).

His discussion offers a clear example of exactly why a materialistic worldview inspired by science leaves one out to sea when it comes to issues crucially important to us.  (I say all this as a big fan of Carroll; he is a great representative of a new generation of scientist-popularizers.)

Here is an excerpt from the latter part of the most recent post (from the third-to-last paragraph -- please check out the whole thing, including links to prior parts of the interchange with Harris, who has now added another riposte here):

 “...morality is still possible. Some of the motivation for trying to ground morality on science seems to be the old canard about moral relativism: 'If moral judgments aren’t objective, you can’t condemn Hitler or the Taliban!' Ironically, this is something of a holdover from a pre-scientific worldview, when religion was typically used as a basis for morality. The idea is that a moral judgment simply doesn’t exist unless it’s somehow grounded in something out there, either in the natural world or a supernatural world. But that’s simply not right. In the real world, we have moral feelings, and we try to make sense of them. They might not be “true” or “false” in the sense that scientific theories are true or false, but we have them. If there’s someone who doesn’t share them (and there is!), we can’t convince them that they are wrong by doing an experiment. But we can try to talk to them and try to find points of agreement and consensus, and act accordingly...”

So morality isn’t grounded in the natural or the supernatural (!). It’s just about feelings and earnest discussions, which are untethered to anything. Well, that isn't good enough.  It isn’t that Carroll is wrong about naturalism about morality being somehow beyond science in a strictly defined sense. Physical science endeavors to remove the first person perspective from the facts gathered (even though all science begins with the experience of observation). I’m in no way suggesting any change to the methodology. But to base a worldview on this paradigm of scientific methodology leaves out first person experience, and all that comes with it: feelings, values, rationality itself.  This is an inadequate metaphysics.  Naturalism can be expanded to encompass this part of reality.


Anonymous said...

Hi Steve.

I find it interesting to imagine what a truly objective morality would have to look like, and I tried to argue one possibility at a discussion about this topic.

My tone was a little adversarial, but I was trying to get some feedback on what was wrong with my argument from a logical and philosophical point of view (obviously I know what's wrong with it from a scientific viewpoint - a total lack of evidence!)

I'll try to post the conversation in a following post, but it may be too long. if it is, here's the link. I start at comment 74

Unfortunately I think they just all thought I was off my rocker, but if you can get past that, some criticism on where this falls down (I assume it must) would be appreciated.


PS - one thing that does spring to mind is that you need additional rules governing when it's OK for one conscious being to punish another.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, 14198 / 4096 > 1...


Steve said...

I think it's an interesting suggestion, and I'll have to think about it some more. I'm still at the stage of arguing that we can deal with morality by understanding its natural basis, but not at the point where I have great ideas of exactly how to do it.

I had initially thought one would begin by trying to identify the correlates of maximal experiential well-being, and I hadn't thought in terms of axiomatic imperatives.

Anonymous said...

Well I'm glad I'm not totally off on one.

On morality's natural basis, some recent experiments suggest at least a genetic level:

Of course, one study isn't proof, but it's an interesting avenue...

Sakitomo said...

'If moral judgments aren’t objective, you can’t condemn Hitler or the Taliban!'

I'm atheist and I do believe that moral judgements aren't objective. But one way to untangle the above statement is to think of any judgment that is to be passed with regards to Hitler and the Taliban as merely a means of protecting the species.

Humanity has come to a stage in its evolution where modern people have had to police each other wherever their ideologies have the potential to harm us as a whole. '

It's got nothing to do with morality, whether it's objective or not; it's just about survival. We know this in an unclear way at some level of our thinking, but some of us choose to describe the actions we take as morality. It's not. It's just another evolutionary process.

Steve said...

Thank you Sakitomo.
That's an interesting idea.

I would say that you are reducing aspects of morality to other natural facts, however, and that still counts as finding an "objective" basis I think. It's just that on your view, the moral judgments are not fundamental -- i.e. they can be reduced to something else.