A Conversation about, “Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions”

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I’ve seen this video before, and I disagree with it on the grounds that he is reaching at trying to create something with science that science cannot justify.

In short, he’s declaring his wish for something to be.

He draws the assumption that suffering is undesirable, when in fact, suffering is very desirable in certain aspects.

Science is irreligious, atheist and does not belong in making moral judgment calls.

28 days ago
The Heretic Of Ethics

Also, at the point when he begins talking about Muslim society he has lost the argument of reason; he is basing his responses and inferences upon a westernized conceptualization of what a person is, what valuation a person has as well as what is acceptable to do to a person.

He is arguing from emotion to the audience, which is illogical, as he is basing his argument on what he defines as Sane treatment of a human being, which is not clearly delineated from culture to culture.

When people have different valuations of things, that means there is no universal consensus. Whather or not there should be a consensus is a different argument altogether; I’d argue that there should not be, as I hate homogenity.

28 days ago
tj dreves

Maybe you should watch it again, because I think he more than adequately addresses your objections directly.

The fact of the matter is there are right and wrong answers to questions of human well-being. If you object to the previous sentence, he would say he doesn’t know what you mean by “right and wrong” and doesn’t think you do either.

He clearly states that there could be many peaks in the moral landscape, or equivalent ways of human flourishing, but there are many more non-optimal ways to organize human society, just as there are countless more ways to be sick than to be healthy.

Even your preference for heterogeneity is a function of your human mind operating on the brain. A preference that we can increasingly measure and reflect collectively.

27 days ago
The Heretic Of Ethics

Vague platitudes of how there is a right and wrong answer to what quantifies human well-being is unhelpful and unscientific. Making an assertion does not equate to a stance being true.

Proof is required, and I do not feel that he adequately provided proof of his position. The Human condition often necessitates and requires the inhuman treatment of outsiders to retain and maintain social cohesion, resulting in outcastes and human atrocity’s… but for the sake of civilization. Perhaps some would argue these things are evil, but they are quantifying their position based upon the precepts of their narrow definition of what good is and what preferable is.

Some might even argue that the preference of good is that all mankind should die. I’ve heard this stance argued before, that mankind is inherantly evil and bad for the world at large and that we are a failed experiment, so human suffering doesn’t enter into such an equation.

The fault of this speaker is he approaches the topic with a pragmatic sense that somehow, everyone will agree as to what basic tennets of right and wrong pertain to human well-being. That is very highly likely not the case.

27 days ago
tj dreves

to admit that there is such a thing as human well-being is to admit that there are right or wrong answers in how to promote it. You don’t have to have all the specific answers to what maximizes human well-being to admit that it can be objectively helped or hindered, i.e. it is a question that people can get wrong. It is a question that is perfectly analogous to human health, just because there is no single right food to eat doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference between food and poison.

26 days ago
The Heretic Of Ethics

No, to admit that human well being exists is not to admit that there is a right and wrong answer as to how to promote it. The two concepts are not inherantly linked. Humanity as a whole varies in it’s perspectives and approaches to human well being and what is considered good or bad, right or wrong.

Making an assertion that the two are connected does not demonstrate that they are, and as such, ALL assumptions made based upon that premise are based upon something with no more foundation than stating it… and if stating things made them true, we wouldn’t have science in any form.

You are buying the assertion and thus buying that people will agree with assertions of things being harmful or helpful… as for poison, the only difference between the two is the biological reaction to substances we are not adapted to digest… so the only difference is what our biology determines is poison. What is poison to me may not be to you. What is poison to humans may not be to other species, in fact, some species produce poison.

There is no right or wrong in science, and this speech of his does not establish that science has any place in making such decisions. He may not be wrong, but he has failed to support his position and has only provided SUPPOSITION as evidence for his stance.

26 days ago
Curt Ries

I think Harris relies on our biological similarities as a species to ground his thesis that moral questions can be empirically approached. Food and poison are only distinguished by their relative interactions with particular organisms or species of organisms. As you observed, what is poison to humans may not be so to other species. But within a given species most food is food and poison is poison. I think Harris is arguing that we are biologically similar enough as a species to answer the question, at least in broad contours, of what constitutes harm and well-being for us AS A SPECIES and thus what we ought to do to avoid one and promote the other. Whether he has argued for this point convincingly enough in his book on the topic “The Moral Landscape” I cannot say, not having read it. But it does not strike me as entirely unreasonable.

25 days ago
tj dreves

“No, to admit that human well being exists is not to admit that there is a right and wrong answer as to how to promote it. The two concepts are not inherently linked. Humanity as a whole varies in it’s perspectives and approaches to human well being and what is considered good or bad, right or wrong.”

You don’t think a world exists outside of people’s opinion of it? People’s perspectives and approaches to well-being, are not identical to their actual well-being. People make poor choices all the time (and not exclusively knowingly). Every day all over the world, people make decisions based on false understandings of reality that reliably result in avoidable suffering and harm, i.e. they make non-optimal choices. It is the case, in an evolutionary sense, that there are more successful and less successful ways to survive (some species survive, some species go extinct). It as undeniably true that there are ways for our species to flourish (whether we know them or not) and there are ways for our species to stagnate or go extinct (whether we’re aware of them or not). If you aren’t willing to grant that the former are better situations than the latter, I’m not sure what you mean by “better” or “worse.” If unnecessary suffering isn’t bad, I don’t know what is.

25 days ago
tj dreves

Did I lose you?

Upon reflection I can state more clearly that I think morality can only relate to creatures, and that since living creatures are always actually existing in reality there will always be better and worse material circumstances for their survival. There is no morality outside of life and the preconditions for morality require the perpetuation of life.

23 days ago
Curt Ries

But survival is not equivialant to well-being, or the quality of that survival. I think it is a mistake to ground morality upon the former rather than the later. Humanity has excelled at opressing groups of its own members for the perceived betterment of those in power without exterminating or inhibiting the reproduction and thus survival of those groups. In my understanding, survival of the fittest works on a species level; species outcompete others for limited resources due to evolved changes in their psyiology or behavior that allows them get an edge in tha play of organism/enviroment relationships. But for this survival to be ensured, a species’ member organisms must only be capable of living to the age of reproduction in a healthy enough state to pass on their genes and to provide some preliminary care to their offspring. But these minimum requirements are by no means sufficient standard for living well.

I was with you in your first rebuttle to Heretic, but your clarification here seems suspect. Though perhaps I am misunderstanding a broader interpretation you have more formed concerning the conection of morality and evolutionary flourishing.

22 days ago
The Heretic Of Ethics

Not lost, merely percolating. Here is the root of why the argument is wrong; Science does not assign right or wrong to mankind existing, and as such, if it cannot be determined whether mankind existing is right or wrong, you cannot assign treatment of individuals as right and wrong.

Science is atheist on valuations. It does not determine right or wrong, as then it is not science. Animals eat their young, but we do not ascribe right or wrong to them.

Why, exactly, should human beings be different? That is where his argument falls down.

He states in the outset that he thinks it is wrong that science cannot determine what ought to be, and what is preferable in existence. He does not substantiate his claim, but instead proceeds onto talking about suffering, with the a priori assumption that suffering is undesirable.

He argues that conditions of well being is preferable, but he does not state how science proves this to be the case. As such, he is wish-making and not conducting science.

He then says that we know there are right and wrong answers, using Cholera in the water as an example, but he does not provide an explanation as to why this isn’t preferable.

Science makes no such claim. Cholera in the water kills human beings. That is neither a bad or good thing in facts, it is merely a thing that occurs.

He makes a lot of logical leaps, which is a very bad practice and is completely illogical. He is working from a precept of empathy from the audience, that everyone should want a lack of suffering or for people to have well-being.

There are no right or wrong answers as to how humans flourish, they either do or do not. There may be manners in which a human being MAY flourish, but there is no positive or negative valuation associated with that, Science does not attribute good or bad to anything.

Then he begins going into more emotional examples, using children (A mental emotional kludge with most people) as an example in relation to corporal punishment, inferring without saying that corporal punishment isn’t desirable for human well being (Which is a fallacious assumption).

I could go on, but really, I got tired of the guy halfway through because of all the irrational logical leaps in his speech. This was singularly one of the TED talks that I felt shouldn’t have been at TED for it’s lack of scientific rigor.

22 days ago
tj dreves

I think the point he’s assuming and that I was trying to make is that right or wrong can only exist to some entity or set of entities. If you want to evacuate “right” and “wrong” of all meaning by claiming that they require some sort of metaphysical foundation be aware that that’s the move you’re making. “Right” and “wrong” already have meanings related to the experiential states of conscious creatures. We’re not starting from scratch. By nature of being alive humans have needs, by virtue of our information processing we value the fulfillment of those needs. There is absolutely nothing illogical about saying we can do what we’re already claiming to be trying to do (live better lives) better.

As such there are absolutely right or wrong answers as to how humans flourish (as in correct or incorrect). Some answers reliably lead to unnecessary suffering, and some the reverse. How can you not agree that the latter are preferable to the former.

Regarding corporal punishment of children, he makes it clear that WHETHER WE KNOW THE ANSWERS OR NOT (and in this case we do) it is an empirical question whether or not it is conducive to healthy development.

It doesn’t have to be metaphysically or transcendentally preferable for life or human life to exist for there to be objectively better ways for them to exist in internal relation to themselves respectively.

17 days ago
tj dreves

@Curt nothing of mine that you responded to was meant to be in conflict with your clarification.

17 days ago
The Heretic Of Ethics

If what you take away from the video was that there are empirically sound methods for insuring the productive development of an individual through something such as Maslow’s Hierarchy, then I can state that yes, there is evidence that there are ways to insure that shelter, food and security can be provided and that these ways assist in improving the individual and society due to creating a individual who is secure in exploring their own potential.

However, I am not going to ascribe a right or wrong to this sentiment, because right and wrong are irrelevant. From a perspective of being a human, you are attributing RIGHT to being that the above is preferable when science has nothing to say as to whether humanity existing is preferable or not. That is emotion and self interest that gives that imperative.

As I stated before, there are some human beings who see the damage that humanity has done to the planet and conclude that humanity, as a whole, has no right to exist. Perhaps you might consider these people extremists, but it does not make their position right or wrong.

There are also some people who continue to view other individuals as property, such as women. Having considered the reasons why the sherpa is used (To conceal the woman so that she cannot incite lust in other men), while it may not be conducive to the individual woman’s well being, it may be viewed societally as assisting societal cohesion by reducing the amount of dischord between one man and another over a woman. Again, this doesn’t have a valuation of right or wrong because science does not make such judgments.

Emotions and self interest does, and Science is cold, hard and logical. Whether you want Science to be something that it is NOT is a different matter, and whether I consider something wrong or right is irrelevant to the discussion; the speaker WANTS science to make these decisions because it is in his interests that it do so and because he wants to justify science being able to make such decisions like religion does as a counter-argument to those who say science cannot.

My biggest problem with the talk is that while talking about something concerning reason he uses emotional rhetorical methods to make a point he never made with either an inductive or deductive inference. He expects the audience to come to agreement with him because it SEEMS right, not because he proved it is so logically. He uses examples that are intended to promote an emotional response to make his case because there is no other way to do so. He has to use emotional means to make his case because, inductively and deductively, he cannot.

16 days ago
tj dreves

It sounds like you’re saying that nothing can really be “right” or “wrong.”

I’m saying that in precisely the same way as there are empirically testable ways to come to conclusions about the best way for an individual to flourish, there are empirically testable ways to come to conclusions about the best way for the human species (or life in general) to flourish. In each case, it’s objectively better for the respective object under consideration.

Regarding whether life would be better off if humans ceased to exist, of course a quick glance indicates yes. The point I’m making is that there is an objective answer to that question. Of course embedded in the question as its formulated is the separation of humanity from life, as if it isn’t included in that category, and the equal moral value of all forms of life, as if the ability to suffer isn’t relevant.

You seem interested in reminding me that there are people that have different opinions like those that think their wives should be in burqas. The point I’ve been maintaining is that it isn’t a question of opinion. There is an empirical answer to whether or not forcing women to be covered from head to toe is conducive to health and happiness, whether or not we know what that answer is.

I’m surprised I can’t get you to admit that UNNECESSARY SUFFERING IS BAD.

12 days ago
The Heretic Of Ethics

As adverse to Necessary Suffering? What defines necessary?

There is no right and wrong. There are only the emotionless, passionless values that reason dictates. That is Science. To include the concept of preference is to abandon science. Science isn’t about preference.

Also, I don’t know why you are surprised. I am The Heretic after all.

12 days ago
tj dreves

Let’s be logical then. Just because there can’t be right or wrong outside of life, doesn’t mean there can’t be a right or wrong inside of life.

“I’m saying that in precisely the same way as there are empirically testable ways to come to conclusions about [better] way[s] for an individual to flourish, there are empirically testable ways to come to conclusions about [better] way[s] for the human species (or life in general) to flourish. In each case, it’s objectively better for the respective object under consideration.”

What in particular about that do you disagree with?

12 days ago
The Heretic Of Ethics

The Conceit that a Human Being knows what is better for the species, since agreement about that is far from universal… and people often mistake what is best for themselves from a series of choices, thinking again with the conceit that as rational actors they can discern from their current choices what is best.

Often they end up being wrong.

11 days ago
tj dreves

That’s why there’s this process called science . . .

11 days ago
The Heretic Of Ethics

Science is the basis with with we provide improvements to life. Whether those improvements are good or bad are determined by the person who utilized them. Not by science.

11 days ago
tj dreves

The word “improvement” has a definition. You don’t get to use the word “improvement” and then call it bad without being incoherent or inconsistent.

“I’m saying that in precisely the same way as there are empirically testable ways to come to conclusions about [better] way[s] for an individual to flourish, there are empirically testable ways to come to conclusions about [better] way[s] for the human species (or life in general) to flourish. In each case, it’s objectively better for the respective object under consideration.”

10 days ago
The Heretic Of Ethics

Well, I can see that you are subjectively attributing preference, just like the speaker, to things that have no inherent value of good/bad. As science makes no such value judgments, and should not if it were to remain what it is, I believe I am done with this conversation. As for “Improvements”, next time I will put the quotes around it, as it was my gut instinct to begin with.

10 days ago
tj dreves

I’m tired of this conversation as well. I don’t need to be baselessly accused of subjectively attributing preference.

You seem to be wanting to have a metaphysical discussion. I am not. Questions of inherent value are entirely moot. Every claim I have made has been conditional.

That you could accuse me of subjectively attributing preference when I explicitly repeat, “there are empirically testable ways to come to conclusions about . . .” Leaves me speechless

10 days ago
tj dreves

you don’t really think humans are blank slates do you?

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