Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

On Sam Harris; or, ‘Where I derp on the derper’

I finally got around to reading ‘The End of Faith’, by Sam Harris. This was one of the major four influential atheist tracts published in the past decade, along with The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and Breaking the Spell. I actually stopped reading by page 109 after the quote ‘We are at war with Islam’ and Harris’ subsequent attempt to justify this statement. I’ve been told by friends with more patience (and less sensitivity to the fallacy of reifying religions) that Harris made some good points as well. I’ve since considered a few of them, but I’m not going to review his book here. Rather I’m going to address his position that science can produce objective morality.

I haven’t read The Moral Landscape, the book in which Harris explains his positions. I have listened to Harris express the position in his TEDtalk and some debates and panels on youtube, and read a HuffPo editorial where he discusses his views and the criticisms others have offered on them. It appears that the wiki page for his book contains an extensive summary of his arguments along with some quotes. Since I’m going to be committing the Biggest Academic Faux Pas Evar by relying largely upon that page here, and since I’m not any sort of scientist or philosopher, I recognise that there is a good chance that what I say will be drivel. Nevertheless I have an opinion  and I think it might add to the discussion. Thus derped Zaru…ahem, Simon.

Here is his basic argument:

Harris’ identifies 3 projects for science as it relates to morality: (1) explaining why humans do what they do in the name of “morality” (e.g. traditional evolutionary psychology), (2) determining which patterns of thought and behaviour humans actually should follow (i.e. the science of morality), and (3) generally persuading humans to change their ways. Harris says that the first project is focussed only on describing what is, whereas projects (2) and (3) are focused on what should and could be, respectively. Harris’ point is that this second, prescriptive project should be the focus of a science of morality.

So basically, Harris thinks that there are things that are objectively good and bad, which we can discover through scientific enquiry.

Here is an utterly unjustified and highly controversial statement he makes:

[I]t is obvious that loneliness, helplessness, and poverty are “bad” [TML, 183 according to wiki]

Now, I wouldn’t argue that being lonely, helpless, or poor doesn’t feel nice. Certainly insofar as science provides us with the ability to measure the affects of anguish or pain and the anxiety they create, we can objectively discover what causes and what alleviates such feelings. But that doesn’t make them ‘bad’ according to my understanding. Not necessarily.

I’ve been lonely a lot of my life so far. I’m no longer lonely for the most part, and that feels wonderful. But being lonely was a valuable part of my experience. That loneliness has contributed fundamentally to so much of who I am, I think. My feelings on friendship, on self-sufficiency, my motivations for personal growth and my understanding of relationships: all of these have been shaped by the experience of loneliness. Helplessness too. I’ve seen a man dying on a Beijing street and felt helpless. I’ve heard the muted sounds of katyusha rockets exploding in the not-so-great distance and the sound of ‘friendly’ tanks firing back, and I’ve felt helpless. I’ve watched family members take their last breaths and felt helpless. I’ve watched the vet euthanise my cat, which had been my companion through my parents’ ugly divorce and remained such for 13 years, and felt helpless. My perspectives on life and death, on war and peace, and on my sense of justice have been influenced fundamentally by feelings of helplessness.

Loneliness and helpless don’t feel nice, and we may want to minimise their presence in our life, but they are both inevitable and formative. Without them we would lack the maturity and confidence to tackle life and its problems.

Here’s another:

Harris acknowledges a hierarchy of moral consideration (e.g. humans are more important than bacteria or mice). He says it follows that there could, in principle, be a species compared to which we are relatively unimportant (although he doubts such a species exists). [TML 210]

Harris has just proposed a heirarchy of moral value of species welfare based on…complexity? I don’t actually think there is any way to objectively justify this. I mean, I agree with it. Most others would too. But I’m comfortable with the hypocrisy of not having an objective justification for it. I suspect that my particular care for human life is a product of a complex mix of evo-pysch and social conditioning. I can certainly think of so many examples where dehumanising some humans allows other humans who otherwise have normal psychologies to engage in the most grotesque acts of violence. This suggests to me that it is expedient to ascribe particular value to human life as a means to an end, where that end is something I’ve decided upon a priori: that society would please me more if it were secure and peaceful, and people behaved in a trusting and fraternal way with one-another.

What derpage does Harris offer in his HuffPo editorial? Well, for a start there’s this overview of the criticism of some of his detractors:

1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)

2. Hence, if someone does not care about well-being, or cares only about his own and not about the well-being of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)

3. Even if we did agree to grant “well-being” primacy in any discussion of morality, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure well-being scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of morality. (The Measurement Problem)

I believe all of these challenges are the product of philosophical confusion. The simplest way to see this is by analogy to medicine and the mysterious quantity we call “health.” Let’s swap “morality” for “medicine” and “well-being” for “health” and see how things look:

1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value health, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)

2. Hence, if someone does not care about health, or cares only about his own and not about the health of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)

3. Even if we did agree to grant “health” primacy in any discussion of medicine, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure health scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of medicine. (The Measurement Problem)

Who’s side is he on with this analogy? ‘1.’ is correct in both cases! There is no scientific reason to value health over certain other things. Consider the man on hunger strike as a protest against oppression. Consider the pregnant woman, whose decision to carry a baby to term carries a pretty major health risk. Consider the vegan! I would go so far as to say that virtually everyone considers something more important than their own health. It is possible to imagine someone who considers good health to be virtually irrelevant, or only relevant as an incidental means to an end. ‘2.’ is therefore correct This hypothetical individual who truly doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about health is, though quite possibly stupid, not objectively wrong from a moral standpoint. As for ‘3.’ I strongly suspect this is a straw-man argument. Few people would suggest that science holds no potential for measuring human sensation or experience, once we define first what it is that we’re measuring.

Sam Harris disagrees of course:

While the analogy may not be perfect, I maintain that it is good enough to obviate these three criticisms. Is there a Value Problem, with respect to health? Is it unscientific to value health and seek to maximize it within the context of medicine? No. Clearly there are scientific truths to be known about health — and we can fail to know them, to our great detriment. This is a fact. And yet, it is possible for people to deny this fact, or to have perverse and even self-destructive ideas about how to live. Needless to say, it can be fruitless to argue with such people. Does this mean we have a Persuasion Problem with respect to medicine?

I think that it is neither scientific nor unscientific to value health and seek to maximise it within the context of medicine. This is a false dichotomy. It is ascientific to value health as science is not an ideology but a form of epistemological pragmatism, and it is contained within the very definition of ‘medicine’ that the aim is to improve health. Science just helps us do it. And as I pointed out earlier, there are people who would require some serious persuasion to put their health before their ideals of social justice. Men and women risk death every day for those values.

Sam Harris goes on to advance a curious view about the scientific method in general, to undermine criticisms [in a curious way] that his views require one to accept that science too requires presupposed values:

As I point out in my book, science in based on values that must be presupposed — like the desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence and logical coherence, etc. One who doesn’t share these values cannot do science. But nor can he attack the presuppositions of science in a way that anyone should find compelling.

Harris is mistaken. The scientific method appears to be the best way of generating accurate beliefs about the world. Accurate beliefs about the world are very useful, because they allow us to improve our quality of life. This is usually why we want to have them. Most scientists probably marvel at the elegance of logic and the beauty of our complicated universe, but some I’ve met do not. You don’t need to be Carl Sagan to do science. There are no values presupposed by the scientific method, merely empirically supportable and falsifiable beliefs about the efficacy of the scientific method.

Some tautologies:

There is no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding and that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it. To say that the worst possible misery for everyone is “bad” is, on my account, like saying that an argument that contradicts itself is “illogical.”

‘Misery’ is usually considered bad by definition, just like a ‘contradiction’ is usually considered illogical by definition. Bad = bad and illogical = illogical. The difference between the two is that the conditions that produce a contradiction are abstract and universal, while those conditions which produce misery are in many cases highly case-specific. Different things cause misery for different people, and while some of those might be nearly universal (seeing loved-ones die…unless you believe they’re going to heaven; seeing your child raped…unless you think it will make her straight) others depend on a person’s particular perspectives and values.

Harris recognises this later. His answer is that he thinks people would converge on a similar understanding of good and bad were they to have perfect knowledge, and that science therefore can therefore cause this convergence of morality through the production of knowledge.  Except he later says something in response to Peter Singer’s criticism over why he is hypocritical to buy his daughter a gift when children elsewhere starve with:

It seems to me that whatever our preferences and capacities are at present, our beliefs about good and evil must still relate to what is ultimately possible for human beings.

Bingo! We are never all going to have perfect common knowledge. Whatever we decide should form our understandings of good and bad, of right and wrong, and of what we want to see happen in society and in our lives, science can only help us to achieve these goals as best as possible. It will not define them.

We do that.


5 responses to “On Sam Harris; or, ‘Where I derp on the derper’

  1. rhonda March 22, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    Hi Simon, Your mom thought I might enjoy your analysis, and she was right. I have not encountered Harris, but after your shredding of him, I suspect I won’t dip into him anytime too soon. One point–you distinguish between misery and contradiction by introducing a subjective element, but your quotation from Harris suggests that he has covered it. He talks about absolute misery for that person. I wonder if misery is quantitative in a way that contradiction is not. Only when we are speaking very loosely can we say that something is slightly contradictory. Misery, on the other hand, can be categorized by metaphorical amount. Am I misreading this? All the best, Simon. It sounds like your life is taking off. Love, Rhonda

    • Said Simon March 23, 2011 at 9:25 am

      Hi Rhonda! Thank you very for reading and commenting. I greatly appreciate your feedback. You’re right that Harris has covered the subjectivity of causes for misery. I do think that it is theoretically possible to completely quantify misery in a person, and practically possible to quantify it up to a useful point. Were we ever to reach a technological point where we could do this for every person, we certainly would be able make moral decisions based on that information. Nevertheless, we’d be making those decisions with pre-existing goals (‘reduce all human suffering’) and thus we’re left still with a teleological morality.

      Harris’ justification for that teleological morality seems to be that we will all converge on a single notion of good and bad as we all become more informed, and that there are certain universal moral feelings that all people innately have which should be considered ‘good’ (naturalistic fallacy?).

      I do think that we can say quite precisely that something is contradictory. A contradiction does not exist in degrees. It refers to an incompatibility of two logical statements, and is therefore binary. I know that in colloquial speech we use it in a rhetorical sense often, but my impression of Harris here is that he was referring to the precise definition.

      My life is nice. I’m thinking of doing another masters in social and political theory, before starting my PhD. Please do keep in touch!
      Love, Simon

      • Michael Keeling March 9, 2012 at 8:38 pm

        “Harris’ justification for that teleological morality seems to be that we will all converge on a single notion of good and bad as we all become more informed”

        The book was not titled “The Moral Mountain”, he is not pointing to some single hegemonic prescription for human behavior. He is pointing out the the moral compass has a figurative upward direction, and that there is a conceptual landscape of peaks reaching toward greater and lesser heights. The purpose of a Moral science would not be to prescribe a path on this landscape, but to illuminate the lay of the land.

        If you assume the position that any serious discussion of Morality, is either a discussion about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, or not a discussion of Morality at all, then you have limited yourself to a domain of true or false statements about the world, and therefrom you have greater or lesser authorities on what it means to be moral, as we have greater and lesser authorities on what it means to be healthy. You can think something is moral, or healthy, and in actual fact be mistaken about this belief.

      • Said Simon March 9, 2012 at 9:38 pm

        I’m not quite sure what your criticism of me is. My criticism of Harris is that he presumes utilitarianism as a starting point and claims that doing so is scientifically justifiable, and the grounds that the more a person knows, the more utilitarian they will become. Am I incorrect? Is Harris not doing this? Because if he is, he’s committed a naturalistic fallacy.

  2. HaifischGeweint May 1, 2012 at 5:30 am

    I found this one the most helpful, of the three you’ve posted with Sam Harris right in the title. It was also the most amusing.

    But seriously, thanks for referring me to these posts on Facebook.

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