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241 thoughts on “Science and Morality

  1. bluskool asked ‘what is the old method.’

    As far as I can see the old method is this. Everybody just tries to convince everybody else of what they think and whoever comes up with the most compelling (by way of attractiveness or scariness) package to the average human conscientiousness in that environment wins.

    But perhaps I have the definition wrong. I believe it to be when a common rule is held by a large group of people. Not a decision that an individual arrives at.

    So here’s my question. Why do people believe in a god or religion? Is it because some powerful diety gave them a set of rules and they were so awed they decided to listen. Or is it a human construct that is used as a way to communicate and socially enforce the morality that a particular society has arrived at through anthropological evolution? I think it’s that religion with it’s rises in power (ability to convert people to it’s morals) and constant revisions, fulfills a human need to validate, communicate and enforce social norms.

    So, by my definition of morality, in order to become a moral authority, science must be capable of convincing a large group of people of a moral stance, and they must be able to enforce it (Not always legally, sometimes with gradients of social pressure.) and revise it to fit the environment.

    I wonder, if science is capable of influencing moral opinion to a greater extent, why isn’t it?

  2. laursaurus says:

    Fascinating discussion. When I read this post in my feed reader, I felt a sense of doom. Using “science” is used to justify morality, especially coupled with eliminating religion, brings images of the Khmer Rouge, Soviet Communism, and Nazi Germany immediately to mind.
    I think I’ll stick with Judeo-Christian values and point to the United States as the example. Not ideal, but pretty damn good. Human beings find the notion of group-think distasteful. It’s hopeless to even expect agreement when the concept of doing so sets off alarm. Men differ from women on the chromosomal level, which I’ve greatly appreciated since age 13. But attempting to make things fair and equal is impossible. No pregnant women are going to be assigned combat duty in the foreseeable future. Or is equality morally superior to physical evidence?
    The young women of today reject what 2 generations of feminists fought so hard for. Just checkout a few pages on Facebook. Would we have even dreamed of making out with another female just to excite the men? Or sending nude photos when requested in just seconds thanks to modern technology?
    We don’t even have the common sense to refrain from texting while driving or chatting on cell phones without bothering to be considerate of people in our physical presence. Do we need to see the numbers to understand these activities totally avert our attention?
    If breastfeeding is scientifically superior to formula who’s well-being holds the trump card? Society demands mothers go back to work and pay some unrelated adult to raise baby. Does baby have the right to be nurtured by his/her own mother? Baby animals are more well off than human children.
    The world is mostly shades of grey. Expanding the role of science to detect black and white would be putting our faith in science. The 10 commandments and considering what Jesus would do seem to be more practical tools to morally navigate most circumstances. Being called to love our neighbors demands consideration and effort than “do onto others.” How you ought to be treated isn’t necessarily the same as how I want to be treated. Some people need a hug and others need their space.
    I’m glad most people realize it’s as “silly” an idea as getting everyone to practice the same religion. Most people can’t be atheist even if they try. And the facts demonstrate my generalization. We can’t even scientifically determine why we exist at all. Believing that we ever can requires a leap of faith.
    The name, Sam Harris, alone turns too many people off. I doubt many people are open to giving his ideas much consideration.
    I am a firm supporter of science-based medicine, but the New Atheists don’t make it on my reading list. “A Letter to a Christian Nation?” Sounds pretty much like poison pen.

  3. Joe says:

    Fifi on 13 Oct 2010 at 2:14 pm wrote “So do people who think burquas are “wrong” also think nuns’ habits are “wrong”? Burquas are just pieces of clothe – it’s what they symbolize that’s problematic.

    I think you missed a couple things. First, the nuns’ habits are optional in that one isn’t forced to be a nun. Second, burqas are expensive, uncomfortable and difficult to walk in since the face covering makes it difficult to see where you are going. At least the habit allows you to breath easily and see clearly.

  4. laursaurus says:

    “So, by my definition of morality, in order to become a moral authority, science must be capable of convincing a large group of people of a moral stance, and they must be able to enforce it (Not always legally, sometimes with gradients of social pressure.) and revise it to fit the environment.”
    In essence, replace religion with science. How can we be certain we understand the science behind anything well enough to adequately justify exerting control over others?
    Religion is not just a philosophical idea. It is people and their chosen identity. How can this blatant double standard be morally justified? Keep religion out of science by whatever means necessary. But it’s good to force science on religion? It inevitably comes down to making a judgment call.
    I choose democracy over any scientifically-tested utopia. I’m so grateful to be born in the United States where we can elect leaders who believe in God.Much safer than leaders who think they are God. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any great leader in history who was an atheist. No offense to the non-believers. I am in the minority here.

  5. JMB says:

    The scientific approach has gained credibility because of the success in the approach in improving our everyday lives. The credibility was the result of adherence to a multi-step process of discovery and validation. People often mistake the individual steps, the tools or methods of science, as being sufficient to indicate that the approach is scientific. That is simply wrong. You can read all of the scientific literature to come up with an inspiration for a theory, but you have not completed the scientific process until you have designed an experiment to provide reproducible, unbiased data to support the theory. You can do all sorts of calculations with equations and computer models, but you have not completed the scientific process until the results of predictions are verified by unbiased observation. You can do all sorts of clinical and epidemiologic observations, but you have not completed the scientific process until you have performed a prospective, double blinded randomized clinical trial. You can do all sorts of decision analysis and mathematical logic, but the scientific process is not completed until the strategy is prospectively tested.

    For morality to be science based, you cannot simply derive theories from neuroscience or evolution. It may sound like science because it makes use of scientific method and literature. But using a few of the steps in the process to make presumptive scientific theories is not sufficient to call it science based. To make it science based, you would have to design an experiment to prove the theory.

    Now imagine an experiment testing the effect on the well-being of women from the morality of wearing certain types of clothing. Do you really think that results of the experiment performed in LA, USA, would be reproduced in Paris, France, and Tehran, Iran? Will experiments in morality be reproducible?

    You don’t call it science based until it has a theory supported by experimental results. Until you have independently reproducible experimental data, your “science based morality” is just an extension of Nietzsche.

  6. Fifi says:

    Joe – They both serve the same purpose, to obscure the person. And not all women who wear burquas are forced to wear burquas or take issue with it – the assumption that they are and do is partronizing. As a woman, I’m not particularly interested in being told what I have to wear or telling other women what they should wear (that includes banning me and her from wearing something). So far it’s mainly guys who want to tell woman what we’re allowed to wear. If Orthodox Jews and various Christian sects get to “force” women to wear wigs and archaic ankle length outfits and it’s okay, why is it different when it’s Muslims? (I’m fine with people wearing silly clothes and while Orthodox Judaism seems very oppressive to women – from the men’s avoidance of women to the unseasonal outfits they all wear – the women I’ve come to know feel, like most fundies of all stripes, that their way of life is virtuous and highly moral. ) There’s a great deal of cultural bias from most people advancing the anti-burqua stance (just like there are is someone accepts male genital alterations for religious purposes but thinks female genital alterations aren’t). Besides, it’s not like banning burquas in the West is actually freeing any women here or there – it’s something done by male politicians to whip up xenophobia. Have you actually discussed this with any Muslim women or women from the Middle East? Or is this just you as a guy deciding what women should and shouldn’t be allowed to wear?

  7. Fifi says:

    A bit of a more in depth look at the burqa and hijab that adds some much needed context to what is actually a much more complex issue than people who’d like to impose their choices on other people (for their own good, of course) want to consider. The people who force women to wear burquas are also doing so “for their own good”.

    http://www.global-sisterhood-network.org/content/view/2317/59/

  8. davidp says:

    A well written and interesting review of an interesting book. Thank you.
    It worries me that several blatantly false statements are credited to the book. “Slavery is now universally condemned” except where it’s still practiced, including heritability debt bondage in India, blatant slavery in Sudan, and child slavery in west african cocoa plantations (cheap slave grown chocolate :-( ). Many groups are still happy with moralities that treat the well being of members of some “other” group as trivial in comparison to the welfare of a member of their own group. Untouchables in India are an obvious less-sensitive example. These two items show that Harris’s baseline universal morality is less universal than implied, and suggest that Harris or Dr Hall may be too western & christian/post-christian centric. Harris also appears to miscategorise and mis-understand “religion” incorrectly seeing Catholic claims as typical of all.

    bluskool may be right that Harris deals with these issues too, but the review and bluskool’s comments give no indication of it. Perhaps some discussion of how Harris handles counter-examples and criticisms would have been useful.

  9. The issue facing most of us isn’t whether it’s morally neutral to impose a burqa, or whether societies in which burqas are required are better or worse than societies in which women are freer in ways that are familiar to us; it’s how to respond to the individual burqa-wearing woman in front of you. (Of whom there are about 100 in Québec, I believe.) Are you improving her life by focussing on how she’s dressed? Is arguing with her about her covering (or excluding her from schools, or ejecting her from the court, or denying her the vote) making her condition better? If not, can you justify your participation in her oppression by saying that it’s in the cause of improving the status of her daughters? Is she being an asshole and you can’t tell because you’re arguing about something you don’t really understand?

    I wrote a blog post about this way back when. http://www.alisoncummins.com/2007/07/18/veils/
    I gave the final word to a (male) muslim taxi driver who was ranting about how veils made him angry. I asked him about the argument in the article Fifi linked to, wherein women choose to veil themselves in order to make themselves visible as muslims. He wasn’t having any of it. “You know what I hate? When those hypocritical imams get up in front of everyone and say so sweetly that you have to treasure and respect women. And you know exactly why their wives can’t show their faces. They’re hiding the bruises and scars.”

  10. “You know what I hate? When those hypocritical imams get up in front of everyone and say so sweetly that you have to treasure and respect women. And you know exactly why their wives can’t show their faces. They’re hiding the bruises and scars.”

    Very compelling. That is why I think the banning of burqas doesn’t address the real issue. If a women wants to wear a burqa, fine. If she is forced to wear a burqa by her husband, it is domestic violence and what is needed are laws or enforcement of laws, hotlines, safe houses, financial independence help, etc. Banning the burqa wouldn’t help*, it only insures the bruises end up under sleeves, scarves or sunglasses.

    Also, I really like that taxi driver.

    *What is the word for something that you do that doesn’t really address the problem, but just makes you feel better because you did something? My word recall is terrible some days.

  11. ““Kindness to children is desirable.” If we all believed this, we would all arrange for children to be well-treated. It’s clear that this is not the case. It’s not at all uncommon for adults to refuse to care for stepchildren for instance, even to the point of killing them.* Strong feelings of righteousness may motivate abuse of the children in their care”

    I have another example that may be more broad. We all believe kindness to children is desirable. Or one might say we all believe that children should have a minimum standard of living. Yet, here in the U.S. we spend a large amount of our disposable income on toys, gadgets and clothes for our children (grandchildren, nieces, nephews, pets, etc) While children in other neighborhoods, states or countries live well below what we would consider a minimum standard of living. So perhaps what we all believe is that it is best to provide an excess of riches for our group and it is a much, much lower priority to provide for other groups.

    What does science have to say about the morality of that issue? When it comes to some sort of consensus and a plan for correction (if needed) I’ll be happy to listen. I’m just a little concerned that the answer may end up being “42″.

  12. Joe says:

    Fifi on 13 Oct 2010 at 10:14 pm wrote “Joe – They both serve the same purpose, to obscure the person. And not all women who wear burquas are forced to wear burquas …

    Nonetheless, the burqua is more burdensome and is forced on women in some places. Furthermore, in Afghanistan (today) many women choose to wear it only because they are still subject to attack by fanatics.

    Now you throw in another off-topic idea, your apparent equating of male circ. vs. female genital mutilation. Objectively, their effect on life is not at all comparable, FGM is unquestionably more barbaric.

    Anyway, the topic here is not whether one is worse than another; but whether either (or both) is a moral requirement.

  13. Yeah, I have a series of posts based on conversations with taxi drivers. I used to travel a lot for work and I had lots of opportunity to learn from them.

    *Displacement activity

  14. daedalus2u says:

    Just because some people practice a certain activity doesn’t make that activity moral or “morally acceptable”. People can say things like torture are wrong, even as they torture and lie about that torture.

    Just because someone claims to be a scientist (moral authority), and claims a certain idea (action) is scientific (moral), doesn’t make it so. Creationists claim to be scientists and are not. Religious leaders claim to be moral authorities and are not.

    A false premise adds no moral value to a proposition. The feeling that an action is moral also adds no moral value to the action. That a “moral authority” says an action is moral adds no moral value to the action.

  15. weing says:

    I think burqas should be banned. If they had been banned in Afghanistan, the bin Ladin would never have gotten away.

  16. qetzal says:

    micheleinmichigan asked:

    Why is it conceptually straightforward to use science to better define human well-being? Why not use philosophy, intuitions, history to define well-being?

    The premise is that the only coherent definition of morality is an empiric one. I.e., there aren’t any gods to tell us what’s moral, and there aren’t any absolute moral principles that can be reached strictly by logic and reason. Morality is nothing more than a set of behavioral conventions developed by humans over millenia, most likely because those conventions resulted in favorable outcomes for the societies and individuals that adopted them.

    If you accept that premise, as I think perhaps Harris does, then wouldn’t an empiric, scientific approach be the only justifiable option?

    Of course, a great many people will reject that premise. I’m not trying to defend it myself. I was just trying to see how Harris might be sidestepping the is/ought dilemma.

    ***

    JMB wrote:

    For morality to be science based, you cannot simply derive theories from neuroscience or evolution. It may sound like science because it makes use of scientific method and literature. But using a few of the steps in the process to make presumptive scientific theories is not sufficient to call it science based. To make it science based, you would have to design an experiment to prove the theory.

    Now imagine an experiment testing the effect on the well-being of women from the morality of wearing certain types of clothing. Do you really think that results of the experiment performed in LA, USA, would be reproduced in Paris, France, and Tehran, Iran? Will experiments in morality be reproducible?

    You don’t call it science based until it has a theory supported by experimental results. Until you have independently reproducible experimental data, your “science based morality” is just an extension of Nietzsche.

    If your point is merely that as yet, there is no well-supported, science-based theory of morality, I agree. Does Harris claim that there is? Or does he merely claim we should try to work toward one? I don’t know.

    However, if you’re arguing that there can never be such a theory because reproducible experiments in morality aren’t possible, I completely disagree. You example is akin to claiming that bacteriology can’t be scientific because a study of E. coli growth in LB at 37C won’t be reproducible if it’s done in minimal medium at 30C.

    Will experiments in morality be reproducible? Yes, at least for some experiments. If morality exists at all, then it exists in the empirical world, and it’s at least partially amenable to empirical study. That’s true even if morality ultimately comes from God.

  17. Harriet Hall – “If the conventional clothing for men is enough to protect male modesty, why wouldn’t similar clothing suffice for women? And maybe the restrictions on showing a breast or breastfeeding in public are also immoral and reduce overall human well-being. Shouldn’t we be able to apply rational inquiry to all those things?”

    I missed this comment before. Probably caught in moderation. Turns out even the article writers get caught in moderation, hehe.

    I wasn’t aware that anyone was currently preventing scientist from applying rational inquiry. What I am concerned with is phrase like ‘empiric, scientific approach are the only justifiable option’ I have no interest in giving science the trump card in matters that it does not yet fully comprehend. Inquire away. Present your arguments along with all the other forms of inquiry.

    So are you saying science shows that burqa are morally wrong?

  18. qetzal – “If you accept that premise, as I think perhaps Harris does, then wouldn’t an empiric, scientific approach be the only justifiable option?”

    Sorry, no, I’m still not understanding. If one says the previous moral conventions (based a non-empiric approach) are probably in place because their results have been favorable for our species, why is it obvious that we should change to a empiric approach? If it ain’t broke…?

    I realize that I am not arguing with you, you are presenting what you think Harris’ argument could be.

  19. Harriet Hall says:

    Micheleinmichian asks “So are you saying science shows that burqa are morally wrong?”

    No, I am saying that science is capable of showing that humans generally equate morality with human well-being and that science is capable of investigating whether burqas improve human well-being.

    If rational, scientific inquiry is not the best option for answering any human question, please tell us what options you think might be equal or superior and why. Some options that have been presented in this thread are “philosophy,” “intuition,” “traditional Judeo-Christian morals” and “hedonism(!).” No one has even attempted to offer any justification for those other options.

    “All other forms of inquiry” have proven spectacularly inadequate in providing reliable answers to other questions. Why would you expect them to perform any better in questions about morality? What standards would you use to choose between the various options?

  20. Harriet Hall,
    Thank you for continuing this provocative discussion.

    “science is capable of showing that humans generally equate morality with human well-being”

    … and presumably also capable of showing something else. Has the science been done? Is this the conclusion? Intuitively, if you ask people whether morality is another word for the efficient distribution of goods, I would guess that most non-economists would think you were nuts. (Granted that the efficient distribution of goods is not sufficient for human well being, it is necessary.)

    “He defines an action as moral if it increases the well-being of humans and other conscious beings, and immoral if it decreases well-being.”

    Sam Harris may define morality that way, but it’s not clear that the scientific evidence compels this definition. The way you have presented it, it sounds as though he has chosen this definition as axiomatic — especially since you distance him from Michael Shermer who you present as at least making intuitive sense.

    If you ask random people on the street, intuitively I would expect that most people would think about things like hierarchy, control of sexual access, protection of one’s own relatives and the ability to enforce boundaries. Don’t most people think of these as moral things in themselves, not as a means to creating greater well-being for vertebrates and higher cephalopods?

    What does it mean to increase well-being? Is there twice as much well-being in two humans as in one? Do humans get more well-being points than other animals because we are more conscious? In that case, would eradicating other forms of animal life on the planet to make room for the most possible human life lead to a net increase in well-being and be a highly moral project? If capitalism is a force for good to the extent that it enables the efficient distribution of goods among humans, what would lead to the efficient distribution of goods among non-human conscious beings? Between humans and non-humans?

    *** *** ***
    Since you asked, I rely on hedonism because it’s empirically what has worked best for me. As stated above I can’t advocate it because it’s too difficult to generalize. Also as stated above, I would welcome a scientific basis for morality. But you did ask.

    Trying to figure out what’s right and then conforming to that hasn’t worked for me very well. It means that I do things that I don’t want to do because I think I am supposed to, and then I get into trouble. It made me vulnerable to abuse by a manipulative ex who was able to demonstrate that my consciousness was insufficiently raised and that I should just do what she thought was right. If I had been more confident in relying on my own pleasure I would have walked out on her long before she was able to do significant damage. As it was, I stuck around — to nobody’s benefit.

    The things that give me pleasure aren’t very complicated. I want to be fair, as I said above. I like learning things. Living in a low-conflict, relatively egalitarian, healthy and educated human society is what would be most fun for me and I try to foster that goal both locally and globally. I’m not happy if my neighbour is not, so hedonism means that I do what I can for my neighbour. Benefiting from another’s suffering does not give me pleasure, so I am trying to be vegan. I’ve started taking singing lessons because they are pleasurable in themselves. Lying is not at all pleasurable so I do what I can not to put myself in situations where I might be tempted. Guilt is not pleasurable either, so hedonism dictates that rather than allowing myself to be paralyzed by self-recrimination I do what I need to do, accept the consequences and then move on.

    Hedonism works for me because it’s honest and protects me and because it’s simple enough for me to understand. It’s not going to make me an influential satyagrahi, though.

  21. Fifi says:

    “That is why I think the banning of burqas doesn’t address the real issue. If a women wants to wear a burqa, fine. If she is forced to wear a burqa by her husband, it is domestic violence and what is needed are laws or enforcement of laws, hotlines, safe houses, financial independence help, etc. Banning the burqa wouldn’t help*, it only insures the bruises end up under sleeves, scarves or sunglasses.”

    Exactly, if the real intent is to help oppressed women then banning the burqa doesn’t do anything other than further isolate women who wear burqas within the very environment that is oppressing them. And, if it’s only about the physical limitations that a burqa imposes upon a woman, then why is it necessary to ban headscarves worn for religious reasons too? In France at least all religious articles of all faiths were banned in schools (not just headscarves) – not that this makes it any more than playing politics and invoking xenophobia for political reasons on the part of Sarkozy who hasn’t supported women-friendly legislation when it applies to women in general. I’d be a bit more impressed if those who go on about it being a moral imperative to ban the burqa because it’s oppressive to women showed the same interest in how women are oppressed and suffer domestic violence in our own culture.

    Yes, we do have a culture war going on between secular and orthodox/fundamentalist religious values but to make it all about the Other/Muslims is silly since the Other/Orthodox Muslims are very aligned with fundies of various denominations in our own culture who have the same ambitions regarding regaining religious authority/control over women’s bodies (and do so very effectively, as the government funded and ideologically based abstinence approach to birth control makes very clear). We have a lot more power to address these issue in our own societies/culture than in another, but female oppression is not what most people who are into banning burqas are really interested in. They’re interested in using women’s bodies for their own political ends that have nothing to do with the wellbeing of women.

  22. daedalus2u says:

    I think there is a semi-universal scientific morality, but it is complicated and requires a pretty deep understanding of reality and a very good ability at dissociation to dissociate one’s personal and idiosyncratic preferences, wants and needs from other individuals’ preferences, wants and needs. If you have an ability to do that, then yes, you can think about universal morality. If you can’t do that, then no you can’t think about universal morality.

    I think (but not enough of an expert in Buddhism to really know) that the “emptiness” and “no-self” concepts of Buddhism are versions of this dissociative state. You need to become disconnected from somatic feelings so that you can think and apply value judgments independent of your feelings. It is not that anyone’s feelings are not important in the evaluation, what is important is that the evaluators’ feelings do not influence the objectivity of the evaluation.

    To really enter this state, you need to be able to appreciate that consciousness is an illusion, albeit a persistent one. There is no “I” that is self-identical to the “I” of some time in the past, or of some time in the future. You need to enter this state and be able to consider moral transactions between your present self and your future self as separate individuals, and as separate individuals with no greater or lesser claim on having their needs and wants satisfied than any other individual.

    Most individuals consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own well being and their own preferences while claiming they do not and externalizing that self interested behavior as being sanctioned by a moral authority.

    This especially includes all Patriarchal religions and all social groups that claim to prioritize self-sacrifice, which is virtually always confined to the non-leaders. They try to make their “morality” universal by invoking “God” as the source of that “morality”, but there is no “chain of custody” that can be examined to verify that the claimed rules of God’s “morality” actually came from God and not men.

    If people are making a factual claim (this rule of morality came from God), then they should be able to back it up as a factual claim (i.e. provide direct proof that the rule actually came from God). If they can’t, then it becomes a matter of hearsay and no more valid than any other example of hearsay.

  23. bluskool says:

    “Sam Harris may define morality that way, but it’s not clear that the scientific evidence compels this definition.”

    There is no scientific evidence that compels the definition of any scientific discipline. Physics is the study of matter in motion. What scientific evidence is there that physics should be defined this way? Is there any scientific evidence that we ought to try to understand matter in motion?

    You simply have to start with an unjustifiable goal in order to begin doing science at all.

    If you disagree that “the well-being of conscious creatures” should be the goal, what do you think should?

  24. bluskool says:

    @michele

    As far as I can see the old method is this. Everybody just tries to convince everybody else of what they think and whoever comes up with the most compelling (by way of attractiveness or scariness) package to the average human conscientiousness in that environment wins.

    The problem I have with this method is that there is no clearly defined goal and it has the potential to lead to repugnant outcomes. If the nazis had won WWII and managed to convince everyone that they were correct, the subsequent extermination of all jews would be morally right using your method.

    It seems like your view is some sort of cultural relativism.

  25. bluskool on defining morality: “You simply have to start with an unjustifiable goal in order to begin doing science at all.”

    In other words, pick an axiom and work from there, which is exactly what people have conventionally said. As Harriet Hall says to begin her post: “I have frequently said that science can only provide data to inform our decisions but can’t tell us what we “should” do; that it can determine facts but not values.” First you pick your values then you use science to tell you what is effective in furthering your values. If relieving suffering is good, then science will help you develop medicine to relieve suffering. In the classical view, science cannot tell you that the relief of suffering is good, however.

    Harriet Hall then goes on to say: “I stand corrected. … [S]cience can and should determine what is moral.” It’s not at all clear to me that Sam Harris has used science to determine what is moral. He may have, but all that Harriet Hall has said is, “He defines an action as moral if it increases the well-being of humans and other conscious beings, and immoral if it decreases well-being.” This is not an explanation of the science used to come to this definition; it is simply an axiomatic statement that does not appear any different from any other axiomatic statement. We’re back to picking values in advance and only then turning to science to provide data.

    I’m not saying this is wrong, just that I don’t see how it is new or different in any way.

  26. Harriet Hall says:

    Alison Cummins says “We’re back to picking values in advance and only then turning to science to provide data.”

    It’s a fact that we have values in advance. We have a moral sense. That’s something that can be studied by science. Science can ask what values we have and how we pick them. Science can provide data to show whether a given action supports our stated values.

    “I don’t see how it is new or different”

    What is new and different is attempting to answer these questions with a more objective approach than could be offered by “other ways of knowing” like religion, intuition, hedonism, philosophy, etc.
    Science has a track record of finding reliable answers that can be reproducibly tested and that scientists around the world can reach a consensus on (even though a few mavericks disagree). Those other methods have only produced conflicting subjective answers that cause controversies and even wars. Isn’t it worthwhile trying to see if rational inquiry can do better?

  27. daedalus2u says:

    What science can and should do with morality is look at the premises of the various morality schemes and see of the conclusions of what is “moral” follows from the premises. If the conclusions don’t follow, then the conclusion is immoral according to the premises.

    What most religions do then is add a new premise saying that in this special case this particular action by this particular person is moral just because.

    What science can also do is look at the consensus of what most or of what many people think is “moral”, and from that data set infer what fundamental properties “moral actions” have.

    I think that is what Harris has done. From a general consensus of precepts like “the golden rule”, one can (to some extent) infer semi-universal premises.

    What is considered “moral” is not universal because some people (for example Kim Jon Il) prioritize their own welfare such that they define their whim as the definition of “morality”. This is epitomized by the other “golden-rule” (he/she who has the gold makes the rules).

  28. bluskool – how dare you call me a cultural relativist..est.s(?) I might be insulted if I knew what that was. Or perhaps, thank you?*

    I did not mean to imply the greatest number of people believing something are the moral authority. Only a moral without a following is one that has very little ability to effect the well being of sentient beings.

    In that sense one must be aware that when you have a large group of Nazi bent on genocide, empirical scientific evidence that they morally should be stopped and how they can be stopped does little good unless you convince an effective group of non-Nazi’s to listen and act on your evidence.

    I don’t know if that is cultural nepotism. I thought it was just life.

    All I was asking in the previous post was, does science have the capability to convince or compel as well as say religion or mom. What if science discovered that mankind’s well being would be best served if they were told that if they don’t donate an acre of land to the common good demons will eat their soul. Is science going to do that? If it does will it still be science?

    *outsider philosophy, I’m pinning my hopes on it being the next big thing in New York.

  29. Harriet Hall “Those other methods have only produced conflicting subjective answers that cause controversies and even wars. Isn’t it worthwhile trying to see if rational inquiry can do better?”

    Has there been something that prevents science from doing better? I wasn’t aware of any kind of global ban on scientific inquiry into anything.

  30. Perhaps folks just need permission. Scientists, please look into that whole Palestine – Israel thing. Okay? I’d be happy to hear your answers.

  31. Joe says:

    @Harriet Hall

    Previously, you asked me if science can decide the morality of abortion vs no abortion and I replied “No …”. Actually, I should have said “I don’t know.” How would someone come by that knowledge?

    Now (14 Oct 2010 at 2:08 pm) you ask “If rational, scientific inquiry is not the best option for answering any human question, please tell us what options you think might be equal or superior and why.

    It is my position that science is not an option, at all, for answering some questions. That is, I endorse your opening statement “… science can only provide data to inform our decisions but can’t tell us what we “should” do …”.

  32. Harriet Hall says:

    micheleinmichigan says “I wasn’t aware of any kind of global ban on scientific inquiry into anything.”

    Harris doesn’t say science has not been allowed to investigate moral questions. It isn’t officially banned; but you know as well as I do that in practice, political correctness has produced a widespread reluctance to question anything to do with other religions or the practices of other cultures.

  33. Harriet Hall says:

    Joe,

    If science is not an option, that implies that either we can’t answer those questions at all or that there is some better option. Which are you saying? If you think there is a better option, name it and tell us your reasons for preferring it.

  34. “but you know as well as I do that in practice, political correctness has produced a widespread reluctance to question anything to do with other religions or the practices of other cultures.”

    Well I don’t know that, but I’ll accept your premise for argument’s sake and ask…

    Well, what does science plan to do about this whole political correctness thing?

  35. Just a side note about political correctness suppressing scientific inquiry. I’m pretty sure science could question Islamic values right now and find a very willing audience. Of course that is rather singing to the choir.

    But IMO – After various attempts to use science to prove the superiority or competence to rule of one race, culture or gender over others, it’s not surprising that many people are skeptical in that regard.

    Please don’t tell me it will be okay this time. You’re not getting those car keys back for awhile.

  36. Harriet Hall says:

    micheleinmichigan,

    Really? I find it hard to believe that you haven’t noticed that challenging other people’s religious beliefs and cultural practices is frowned upon. Didn’t you hear about those cartoons in Denmark?

    What does science “plan” to do? Science’s province is asking questions and testing hypotheses. It doesn’t have any regulatory power. It can show that vaccines are better than not vaccinating, but it can’t enforce universal vaccination. It doesn’t exactly have plans about political correctness, but it can plan to treat all questions as equally open to rational inquiry.

  37. Harriet Hall says:

    “After various attempts to use science to prove the superiority or competence to rule of one race, culture or gender over others, it’s not surprising that many people are skeptical in that regard.”

    Repeat that sentence, substituting “religion” or “philosophy” or “intuition” for science. Do you trust any of those other options more? Science makes mistakes, but it has a built-in self-correcting mechanism that those other options lack. Because of science itself we now reject those findings of earlier scientists that were once used to assert the superiority or competence to rule of one race, culture or gender over others. Examples of bad science don’t invalidate the success of good science.

  38. Joe says:

    @Harriet Hall on 14 Oct 2010 at 8:26 pm,

    I cannot think of a reliable way to settle many social questions. We have, for example, expert panels (e.g., Supreme Court), deliberative bodies (Congress) and the popular vote. Each one works well; but only when it agrees with my position.

    Thanks for a great discussion, I wish I could contribute more usefully.

  39. Religion changes over time just as science and philosophy do. Intuition is changed by adaptation and experience as well. Example of bad science, religion, philosophy or intuition do not invalidate any of their successes. But we are becoming redundant. I will offer a silly story, from my viewpoint.

    I am walking down the road, I see a group of kids taunting another kid. My moral intuition is to put a stop to it. My golden rule morals say put a stop to it. My mom would have put a stop to it in a particular way which I have seen, this gives me some idea how the situation could play out. I am content with this. But open to suggestions on technique or timing.

    So now someone tells me that an empirical scientific analysis is the only valid approach to the question of whether I should put a stop to this taunting. Sadly, I don’t have time to gather data and have an analysis done by scientists. So I just follow by same old method. In other words, it doesn’t matter.

    Alternately someone could tell me, that empirically I should stop the taunting. Good to have validation, but still basically doesn’t matter.

    Alternately someone could tell me. No! scientific analysis has determined that ultimately it is better for mankind’s well being if you let the taunting continue. I say, give me a minute. Stop the taunting and then ask for an explanation. Perhaps science could give me a clear and understandable reason to allow the taunting of this boy. But I’m inclined to think (from my experience) that it will show me a bunch of charts and statistic that I don’t understand, with samples and surveys that I don’t trust, because there are all sorts of things that they could do to influence the outcome. If I trust the science without completely understanding it, how will that be any different that trusting a God or priest? What percentage of the population will really understand any given explanation to a scientifically arrived at moral?

    Now I don’t want to say that YOU shouldn’t arrive at your moral through scientific inquiry. Live and let live I say. But I get bothered when some says basically “my ways the best way for everyone” knowing that I may not actually be able to verify their conclusions.

    Thanks for the discussion! Very thought provoking. Pretty sure I’m not right. I seldom am. Also sorry to sound overly adamant. I’m just hurried. My husband want to watch Detroit 1-8-7 with me.

  40. zen_arcade says:

    I have to insist, like Dr. Hall, that those with criticisms of Harris actually read his book before concluding, Ayn Rand-style, that he’s wrong. He addresses most of the criticisms raised here and elsewhere. Thanks Dr. Hall for this review.

  41. JMB says:

    If your point is merely that as yet, there is no well-supported, science-based theory of morality, I agree.

    That is merely my point. Until there are serious attempts to experimentally validate the theories, it cannot be called science based. You are optimistic that it will be done, I am not. Either of us could be proved right or wrong when such experiments are attempted. Of course, any scientific answer can change in the future if new experimental data is produced. One significant problem is developing a theory that is amenable to experimental proof.

    Science makes mistakes, but it has a built-in self-correcting mechanism that those other options lack.

    Results of reproducible controlled unbiased experiments are required for self-correction. When those experiments are designed and results reproduced, then there is a science basis for morality. Until the science process can be completed, you cannot claim that the scientific method is superior to any other method at determining morality.

    What science can and should do with morality is look at the premises of the various morality schemes and see of the conclusions of what is “moral” follows from the premises. If the conclusions don’t follow, then the conclusion is immoral according to the premises.

    That is mathematical logic. It has been successfully applied to the analysis of morality in the past, but it does not qualify as scientific basis (at least as envisioned by Galileo).

    Science can ask what values we have and how we pick them. Science can provide data to show whether a given action supports our stated values.

    I would agree with you on that, but can science tell us that the ends justify the means, or what are the correct values?

    Science has a track record of finding reliable answers that can be reproducibly tested and that scientists around the world can reach a consensus on (even though a few mavericks disagree).

    Unfortunately, there are many theories that are accepted by scientific consensus, rather than experimental proof. Is there a guarantee that scientific theories of morality will only be determined by experimental proof? If scientific theories of morality are accepted by scientific consensus, then scientists become the high priests of morality.

    What is new and different is attempting to answer these questions with a more objective approach than could be offered by “other ways of knowing” like religion, intuition, hedonism, philosophy, etc.

    An objective rational approach to morality has been fairly thoroughly developed in the history of philosophy.

    Examples of bad science don’t invalidate the success of good science.

    The eugenics used in the science basis of morality of Nazis was bad science, but didn’t change the scientific principles of genetics. It was bad because science was used to justify what most considered immoral.

    Until “science based morality” can produce reproducible unbiased experimental data, it should be judged by comparison to the long history of rational approach to morality developed by past philosophers. “Science based morality” is at the inspirational stage of theory development, far from completing the scientific process of “inspiration, hypothesis, experimental design, reproducible data by independent performance of the experiment.” Experimental design is half of the scientific genius. Sometimes, I think it is more than half of scientific genius.

    There have been scientific studies completed on art and love. Some of those results are reproducible. However, I can’t see how those scientific observations help me in finding art that I appreciate, or working through the process of lasting love. There may be some facets of morality that can be subject to experimental proof, but I don’t expect that they will result in changes in my core values. I can be proven wrong, but it will be by data, not polemic. Any polemic I would judge against the wide variety of polemic already available. Nobody gains credibility in competing polemics by claiming to be a scientist until they can produce the experimental data. But of course, when you have experimental data, it is then science, not polemic.

    I am not arguing about what Harris has written, I am arguing that science is a process with multiple steps. Until all steps are completed, scientific validity has not been achieved. Science based medicine means we should be aware of those steps, and judge “scientific” claims accordingly.

  42. ” 1. To explain why people tend to follow certain patterns of thought and behavior (many of them demonstrably silly and harmful) in the name of “morality.”
    2. To think more clearly about the nature of moral truth and determine which patterns of thought and behavior we should follow in the name of “morality.”
    3. To convince people who are committed to silly and harmful patterns of thought and behavior in the name of “morality” to break these commitments and to live better lives.”

    It seems that you would need to finish these projects or at least make documented progress before you could claim.

    “we know enough about the human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of human life.”

  43. Alison Cummins – Displacement Activity is a good word. Unfortunately it is not the one I was looking for. After consulting various search engines and the thesarus. I’ve come to the conclusion that there may be no such word and I’m experiencing a sort of cognitive mirage, somewhat like Déjà vu’. Oh well.

  44. Fifi says:

    It’s using ideological language and a rather cliche argument to insinuate that people who don’t agree about the burqa ban are being “politically correct”. Nobody here seems to be saying you can’t critique or even flat out be nasty about Islam or critique the burqa, what is being said is that the situation is more complex than politicians are trying to make it and that the political record of someone like Sarkozy vis a vis women’s rights makes it pretty clear that this isn’t really about women’s rights. There are very valid concerns about how a ban like this may be politically popular but actually more harmful to women who are oppressed. In certain circles, obviously it’s more politically correct to want to ban the burqa. When ideology trumps human good, when it becomes about protecting an idea not people, who and what is it really serving?

    As for Islam waging a war on reason and science, so is Christianity and it’s been much more effective in doing so in the West than Islam has. The US doesn’t have a real separation between church and state either (just the illusion of one at this point). So, if the aim is to protect a culture of reason and science, blaming Islam and Muslims for it being threatened in the West doesn’t really make any sense and is avoiding the real threat from within our own culture/society. We are no more a culture of reason and science in real practical terms – people who put science before religion are a minority in our culture too and probably have more in common in this respect with scientists from all over the world than they do with Born Again christians in their own country. Or at least that was my experience growing up and moving around as a researcher’s kid.

  45. chaos4zap says:

    I was very excited when I found out Sam was writing this book and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

    Religious people commonly agree that actions that are prescribed in their text(s) are not moral actions (Stoning of Homosexuals, Slavery, Murder of women that are not virgins on their wedding day, etc..). However it is that they have decided that those prescribed actions are no longer moral, they can’t say that it is from the religious text, which say otherwise. Is this not evidence that we can determine morality independent of religion? To parrot a point that I’ve heard used in a debate: If the religious honestly believe that their morality comes from their respective religion, they would then have to admit that if their religion was demonstrated to be false (i.e. for Christianity, the discovery of the tomb of Jesus this his body still in it), that they would no longer think and be able to justify that murder is wrong or that any morality exists. You would also have to admit that before the “revelation” of your religon to humans, no morals existed and everyone thought it was just fine to rape, steal and murder. I don’t think either is a defensible position by anyone. There is nothing more de-humanizing and insulting to humanity than to say that we cannot collectively determine and justify right and wrong.

  46. daedalus2u says:

    The way that the term “moral” is usually used is as a weapon of “bait and switch”. Individuals call something “moral” which then justifies them doing it and requiring it of others. Mostly “moral” is a catch-all term that really means:

    “If you do this bad thing I can do bad things to you because only bad people do this bad thing and bad people are “fair game” for good people (i.e. me) to do bad things to”.

    The whole purpose of most codes of “morality” is to define what leaders do as “moral” and what the non-leaders do as “immoral” so those non-leaders can be exploited by the leaders using the collective sanctioning of the whole group that is led.

    This is why religion is so reluctant to give up its ability to define “morality”. With the power to define what is “moral” comes the power to designate individuals as immoral and so to impose the sanctions of social society on them. This is why religions can’t allow reason to invade their morality-generating system because then they lose the degrees of freedom that arbitrary whims give them.

    This was the problem the Catholic Church had with the pedophile priests. They had to define the priests as moral and so then what ever they did had to be good, so when priests did things that were obviously bad, it causes so much cognitive dissonance that their only recourse was denial.

    This is also the obvious flaw of using the Bible as a source of morality. The Bible does get the whole slavery issue wrong. Why was it moral to have slaves then, but it isn’t now? What about “God’s unchanging moral Law” has changed such that slavery isn’t ok now?

    When Biden (as VP candidate) talked about when human life begins, he said (paraphrasing), that as a Catholic, he took it as an article of his faith, that human life begins at conception and that was how he would personally feel and personally act about it, but his personal feelings were not relevant to his actions as an elected official. Some in the Church responded quite vociferously that when human life begins is not an article of faith, it is a “scientific fact”, implying that as a “scientific fact”, it is completely relevant to his actions as an elected official.

  47. Fifi says:

    I was excited about the book too but am less so now on learning that he frames some of his ideas as being “the problem with Islam” instead of “the problem with religion and non-secular governments” (which includes the US government that isn’t really secular). It’s a bit like how Chris Hitchen’s endorsed Bush because of his military “crusade” against Islam but also wants to be a spokesperson for atheism. It’s not Islam that’s the problem, or solely the problem, it’s religious fundamentalists of all kinds that use religion to justify wars.

  48. FiFi said “It’s not Islam that’s the problem, or solely the problem, it’s religious fundamentalists of all kinds that use religion to justify wars.”

    I agree with this statement. But, it made me think.

    When I cite crimes by religious people, other people in the same religion will say that is not Islam (Christianity, Judaism, etc) those people are using Islamic extremism to gain power.

    When I cite crimes by regimes using atheism (Communist Russia, China) The atheists could say, ‘that was not atheism, that was a oligarchy using atheism to gain power’.

    When I cite crimes by people using science to prove the superiority of one ethnicity, gender or religion over another. I am told ‘that is not science, that is pseudoscience used to gain power’.

    The conclusion that I have drawn is that any tool that can be used to convince people to do something for the betterment of humans can also be used by the tool holder to gain power and supremacy.

    So, for me all of the above tools should be used with a big mental label. “Use With Caution!” When I hear people say empirical analysis and science are the only justified means to arrive at moral conclusion, I get a mental vision of a guy using his band saw with his fingers in the red zone and no safety googles on.

    That is why I feel more comfortable with Dr Gorski’s and JMB’s approach that acknowledges the possible pitfalls of the use of science in deciding morals.

    But I also think that I have become like the drunken guy at the party who repeats his simplistic point with only minor variation until his host considers locking him in the bathroom. So I will cease.

  49. Fifi says:

    Michelle – “The conclusion that I have drawn is that any tool that can be used to convince people to do something for the betterment of humans can also be used by the tool holder to gain power and supremacy.”

    Agreed. And the “I’m rational and nobody else is” claims always make me go “hey, wait a minute Mr/Ms Pseudoscience over there!”. Anyone who was being truly science first would proceed with caution and the understanding that science has gotten this wrong before and we can’t be sure that our own emotional/cultural/psychological biases aren’t tainting the science. I’m old enough that I grew up with science (atheist, scientist parents) that was informed by societal/religious prejudices that still linger in some quarters today. We still have high standing scientists that will make claims like “women aren’t as good at math as men – science says so” (no, actually science doesn’t, at least according to more recent studies). Changing your mind about something like this after the fact does little to undo the damage caused by a false belief of that kind. That’s a mild example. We treated homosexuals as being pathological because science claimed it was pathological for the longest time (and we’re still not entirely clear of all of those prejudices in our society or our science yet). We shouldn’t be putting our faith in science just because we’re letting go of religious faith.

    As someone born and raised an atheist, I have observed that many people who grew up with religion…and believed any of it and then rejected it…often seem to need to replace it with something else. I’m a bit leery of people who “convert” to atheism from a hardcore/fundie religion because they often bring that same conviction to atheism…which, as someone born and raised an atheist seems to me to be missing the point. It’s about becoming comfortable with uncertainty…one practices curiosity rather than faith is the best way I can describe it this morning.

    Now, I do still think that science is the best way to gather facts but we do need to realize we’re still working from a place of limited knowledge and that science tells us that even when we’re sure we’re being rational that emotions/empathy play a role in decision making. And, at the end of the day, we may even find the most logical solution to be the least humane/compassionate and not desirable. For instance, it would be logical to allow a lot of people in the world to die off to resolve issues regarding overpopulation – or to kill off the least productive and genetically least fit members of each society to bring down the numbers to a more sustainable level. Would it be ethical to let people die or kill them? It’s logical obviously but it’s also simplistic and few would consider it the most ethical choice. Then there’s the little matter of how collectivist societies and individualist ones (with America being an extreme example) differ in values. Both types of human societies exist, obviously both are natural. Not to mention “good” and “bad” (and good and evil) are constructs that evolved out of repulsion and attraction so even our biological basis for what we “feel” and often think is ethical may be rather flawed when looked at logically.

  50. Fifi says:

    The difficulty of using science to make ethical (or “moral”) decisions, – though “moral” seems like a very religious terminology to use to me – and also apply them in the real world is made abundantly clear by some of the very difficult discussions that go on in the realm of medical ethics. This IS an area where there’s an attempt to use science to make ethical decisions so we don’t need to speculate about what it would look like if we did this. I’m actually rather surprised that this hasn’t been brought up yet – why speculate when we do have an example of what this can look like?

    For instance, most people take a for or against stance regarding “right to die”/assisted suicide. I’m uncertain, though I lean towards the “right to die” side due to my own biases. I used to be more certain but after discussing it with a friend who teaches medical ethics, I can see how much more complex this kind of thing really is when applied in the real world. (If one factors in things like not wanting to be a burden or not realizing there are other options, or pressure from family/friends, etc) It’s pretty hard to make one rule that covers all contexts – few things in real life, particularly ethical decisions, are as simple as we’d like them to be. Neither religion nor science can totally ensure that we’re getting it right so we can use all kinds of tools but at the end of the day we’re still dealing with making the best decision we can within the current context. We may be horribly horribly wrong however, despite our best intentions. And us humans are pretty good at justifying things and ignoring any evidence that makes us question what we “feel” to be right (or have convinced ourselves is entirely science based when it’s really ideological in origin with some bad science laid over it).

  51. pmoran says:

    Fifi: “Now, I do still think that science is the best way to gather facts —”

    It can also only answer highly specific questions — “does this precise input produce that exact outcome under this set of conditions”. It cannot provide the generalisations that morality demands.

    I have come from religious fundamentalism to something approaching your position Fifi, but cannot describe it as well as you.

  52. JMB says:

    Why would SBM devote much time to explaining the analysis of scientific claims in medicine, but seem to relax its standards in the discussion of scientific claims in morality? We have plausibility. Is anybody even trying to design an experiment? Show me the data.

    In the past, we had many moral instructions in health and diet. Some of those instructions have withstood the scrutiny of the full scientific process. Now that the scientific process has been completed, and certain principles have been shown to be scientifically valid, we tell people, “scientific evidence shows us this is the best way to store and handle food, to minimize the risk of parasites and food poisoning”. Personally, I would laugh if somebody made the statement, “this is the science based moral way to store and prepare food”. Will science determine morality, or just reduce the realm of problems that morality is applied to?

  53. qetzal says:

    JMB, re ‘show me the data’ -

    Dr. Hall already said that in her opinion, Harris does a convincing job of doing exactly that. I admit I’m skeptical, but I haven’t read his book. Have you? If you have, and you found it wanting, then fair enough. But if not, then isn’t it a bit unfair to continue insisting on the data, when you haven’t looked at what’s been proferred?

  54. mikee says:

    I have almost finished reading Sam Harris’s book and I think Harriet’s review does it justice, although as she herself has pointed out a review can hardly communicate many of the nuances of Harris’s arguments.
    I suspect many people resist Sam’s ideas because many of them confront what is going on in society and many of the “problems” identified will be extremely challenging to correct. However, this does not mean that his arguments are wrong.
    For those who feel compelled to disagree with Sam’s ideas and Harriet’s excellent review of the book, I would suggest that you read it yourselves and see if your arguments hold up against Sam’s views and research.
    Carl Sagan described science as a candle in the dark. Sam Harris turns science into a searchlight, peering into areas of society most other scientists choose not to look into. Bravo!

  55. mikee says:

    @Fifi

    “We treated homosexuals as being pathological because science claimed it was pathological for the longest time (and we’re still not entirely clear of all of those prejudices in our society or our science yet).”

    I think you have your facts wrong here. Science never indicated that homosexuality is pathological. While many of those in early medicine/psychiatry may have considered homosexuality pathological these views were not based on scientific evidence.

    “For instance, it would be logical to allow a lot of people in the world to die off to resolve issues regarding overpopulation – or to kill off the least productive and genetically least fit members of each society to bring down the numbers to a more sustainable level. Would it be ethical to let people die or kill them? It’s logical obviously but it’s also simplistic and few would consider it the most ethical choice.”

    An interesting example to choose. One could argue that the Western world already kills off the “least productive” by refusing to share it’s overabundance of food resources with the starving millions in the third world.
    You also assume that in Sam Harris’s world that ethical automatically equals logical. This is not necessarily the case. Sam does not claim that their will be one single pathway to an ethical world – rather that science can indicate which behaviours are morally more acceptable than others.
    Sam identifies moral relativism as dangerous – something I strongly agree with. Around the world different cultures treat woman as second class citizens. Moral relativism states that this is okay if that is part of the culture. This is absolutely immoral.
    I suggest you read the book. I like the way you think even though we disagree on some points and think you would find it quite thought provoking.

  56. Fifi says:

    Mikee – “I think you have your facts wrong here. Science never indicated that homosexuality is pathological. While many of those in early medicine/psychiatry may have considered homosexuality pathological these views were not based on scientific evidence.”

    True that it wasn’t really science based but,then that’s my point, it was presented as such by the medical profession – as pathological and something to be “cured” by psychiatry (and it wasn’t “the early days”, we’re talking 1970s and 80s). My point is that we cannot be sure that medicine and science is free of a bias we’re not aware is a bias. It was, of course, science that was also eventually able to give evidence that homosexuality is natural and exists in the natural world…but science (including evolutionary biologists) for a long time refused (or rather were blinded to by their biases) homosexuality in nature. It was something parents could put their children in mental institutions to “fix”. The point is that it was a perspective that was considered to be “scientific” at the time, erroneously of course, but we’re still not entirely free of our cultural biases and it’s exactly this feeling of “phfff, that was forever ago and not important” that makes me wary.

    mikee, maybe you’re simply not old enough to remember some of the rather false ideas that were held by science. Or maybe you want to pretend “that wasn’t real science but now we’re right it is” which is exactly the mindset that is dangerous and was prevalent then. I grew up around research into neurobiology starting in the 60s so I’m incredibly aware of the leaps that science started making in the 80s when new tools revolutionized our understanding of the brain. And my mom’s a doctor too so I also got a front row seat regarding sexism in science. Science is a remarkable tool when used well and when it’s not being made servant to an ideological agenda but cultural biases are incredibly pernicious and hard to root out (particularly if we’re surrounded by people who have the same belief). If science has taught us anything, it’s just how hard it is to do studies that aren’t informed by a bias – particularly around soft subjects, culture and subjects we’re still very far from having a complete understanding of. So, yes, we should use science but we should be very wary of placing our faith in it or forgetting how we’ve so badly misused it before.

    I’m not anti-science by any means – I’m just wary of not being appropriately scientifically cautious based upon the very history of science when it comes to culture and society. I’m not advocating using religion or make believe to inform decisions, I’m just pointing out that science has failed badly in this area before (science used/abused by people, often believing they were doing good, but who else would be using it this time but us humans?). So, yes, science can inform our decisions and should be used in this way but, as we’ve seen, science is more often used as a political tool that serves goals other than the common good. And science is very easy for politicians and commercial entities to corrupt (as this blog so often reminds us all).

    Because I grew up an atheist, I’ve been discussing ethics outside of religion my whole life. There most certainly are biological underpinnings to ethical behavior and much has been written about this (well before Sam Harris) but we also have a biological tendency to believe that attractive people are “good” and ugly people are “bad/evil/criminal”, many of us will follow sociopaths when we don’t know what to do because they seem certain and we like certainty/sense of someone in control, to believe in god(s)/ghosts…and some people obviously have biological urges to do things that most of us find morally repugnant. And then there’s the little matter of confirmation bias and unconscious biases (check some of the studies on unconscious racism). So, yes, I think science is a simply marvelous investigative tool/method but I’m also very aware of how science gets practiced in the real world by real people, and gets used by politicians in the real world. I’m a realist (well, more of a practical idealist really) so while I’d really like religion out of social policy (and politics out of science), I think there’s still too much ideological interference with science and unacknowledged biases to not be very cautious – particularly since Harris seems to be mixing a lot of ideology into his argument.

    As for “the rest of the world treating women as second class citizens” – telling women/us/me I/we can’t wear something is just as much treating me/us as a second class citizen as telling us we have to wear something. America still treats women as second class citizens and objects by the way, it’s just more insidious and covert. On a practical level, banning the burqa only serves to isolate the women most vulnerable to being abused and controlled even more – they won’t be able to leave their home – and makes them more dependent upon the men that possibly abuse them. So, it’s not really about helping or protecting women (and it potentially makes it even harder to help women in that situation) then is it? It’s about using women’s bodies as a political battleground – just like the Taliban does. (If it was about changing male behavior then the laws would be around male behavior, not targeting women alone.) That’s not loving of women, it’s taking on a visible symbol for political purposes. And Sarkozy has actually been quite clear that it’s about “protecting the French way of life” – a lot of this has to do with the fact that France is full of ghettos of poor black muslims that have the right to live in France because of France’s colonial history. Xenophobia is often exploited in French politics – La Penn being one of the more famous faces of politicized French racism. Sarkozy is trying to exploit this while pretending he’s not (if he’d actually supported any pro-women’s rights legislation maybe he’d have some credibility when he claims to be supporting women with this bill).

    Certainly our world is facing some big issues as it “shrinks” – there’s the struggle going on between religious fanatics (various fundamentalist sects in both Islam and Christianity both here and abroad, and NeoCon that use religion and religious fanatics in a Randian anything-goes), there’s the huge issues created by women becoming more liberated in the West and the anti-woman/feminist backlash caused by the slipping away of white male entitlement as they become a minority, there’s the ongoing economic/resource crisis which will only get worse because economics aren’t reality based, and so on. But, yes, forcing women to not wear something or never leave the house will certainly resolve all of this. Funny how controlling what a woman wears (you know, controlling women) is where both sides want to fight their battles and both want to control women not protect – despite that being what both sides claim.

  57. Fifi says:

    mikee – I’d suggest that if you really want to help Muslim women then donating to women’s shelters here actually protects all women who are being abused by their husband and under physical threat. And we could stop referring to murder as “honor killings” when really they’re the same thing as men from our own culture with NPDs do when they try to control themselves and their lives through controlling the women in their lives. C’mon, Sarkozy is such a narcissist that he tried to sue someone who made a doll making fun of him by suing them. Is this really someone who values open political discourse but, like the men of the Taliban, can’t deal with someone making fun of him or disrupting the grandiose image of himself he likes to promote?

  58. Fifi says:

    “Morally acceptable” – this is, yet again, using religious terminology and really does make me take pause simply because it’s usually “ethics” that are discussed in science. Science can’t define what is “morally acceptable” because “morals” are a religious construct. What it can do is tell us what the biological underpinnings of certain beliefs about what is “good” and “bad” come from (does a feeling of disgust really determine whether an action is ethical or not? Many people are disgusted by bugs or scared of snakes – for good evolutionary reasons – that hardly makes bugs or snakes “evil”, though we do often portray them that way).

    Science can also help us understand what is constructive behavior if we have a certain outcome in mind, and what is destructive. However, if we have a basic understanding of the very basic understanding we currently have of neurobiology and culture, and how culture shapes our brains, many things that may seem “obvious” to someone from a subjective perspective can be more complex than we prefer them to be. I wouldn’t trust anyone who’s uncomfortable with uncertainty or not vigilant for their own biases (and willing to address them rather than deny when pointed out) to be doing good science, btw. We’ve only been really able to start studying the brain (and then mainly in the artificial environment of a lab) for about 30 years – so we really do need to be realistic about the incompleteness of our understandings about the brain, culture, ethics and even individual and collective well being.

  59. I’m still not seeing that there is anything new. As far as I can see this “science-based morality” is morality grounded in a good liberal arts education – the morality of the godless liberal elite.

    Us godless liberals have been bringing the “Um, but it doesn’t actually work” and the “No, that’s not actually true” arguments to bear against various harmful religiously-motivated laws and interventions for decades. Does Sam Harris discuss tests of the effectiveness of these arguments in the book?

    Finding common ground with someone and referring to objective facts are basic negotiating tactics that have been understood for a very long time. Sam Harris might be thinking that “science” can be promoted and accepted as a neutral common ground for liberals and religious conservatives to work from. In what circumstances has Sam Harris found this to be effective? Does he find that science is accepted when the outcomes are not the ones desired? In today’s culture wars, I’m not sure we’re seeing that. I think that science is perceived to be an irrelevant toy of the liberal elites or abused by religious conservatives. I don’t see evidence (but then again I’m not looking) that science is generally accepted as neutral by non-scientists. Presumably Sam Harris has been looking for this evidence; if he’s presented it in his book, that would be new and interesting.

    As an example a little closer to home, when Dr Amy of Salon.com wrote a blog post about the immorality of single women bearing children, focussing on the particularly great immorality of African-American women who don’t bother getting married before having children, she said this was a scientific point of view, not her personal opinion, because research proves that children do best when raised by two opposite-sexed legally married parents. She was asked if that meant that she thought it was immoral of lesbians to have children, and she said yes, it definitely was, science proved it. Lots of people pointed out that the research has been done and is very clear that the children of lesbians are not different in any measurable way from other children except that they seem to be more open-minded. At that point Dr Amy of Salon.com decided that the science was irrelevant, that she was writing an opinion piece, and that any woman who brought children into the world outside the context of a legal heterosexual relationship is by definition immoral, and that remained her opinion no matter what the science said. When she blogged on SBM the question followed her and she continued to defend it here; other SBM bloggers – including Harriet Hall – defended her right to express a moral opinion unsupported by science in a scientific forum and even rebuked commenters for challenging her to support her opinion.

    If science cannot provide common ground for discussions of control of women’s sexuality on SBM, where *would* it be able to do so?

    Again, it’s not that liberal education isn’t useful for providing a basis for a «projet de société». It’s extremely useful for that. It’s that it’s been around since Socrates – it’s not new – and when we talk about “morality” (as opposed to ethics) we are usually talking about something important to social primates and not very amenable to reason.

  60. Fifi on morality: “What [science] can do is tell us what the biological underpinnings of certain beliefs about what is “good” and “bad” come from (does a feeling of disgust really determine whether an action is ethical or not? Many people are disgusted by bugs or scared of snakes – for good evolutionary reasons – that hardly makes bugs or snakes “evil”, though we do often portray them that way).”

    Yeah, what she said.

  61. Harriet Hall says:

    Alison said “When she blogged on SBM the question followed her and she continued to defend it here; other SBM bloggers – including Harriet Hall – defended her right to express a moral opinion unsupported by science in a scientific forum and even rebuked commenters for challenging her to support her opinion.”

    That’s not exactly the way I remember it. Amy did not post about that subject here, although something may have come up in the comments to another post. I certainly don’t think there is anything wrong with expressing a personal opinion in any forum as long as it is identified as such. I can’t imagine that I would have rebuked anyone for challenging someone to support an opinion. Anyone who expresses an unsupported opinion should be challenged to support it. Anyone who is convinced by unsupported opinion should get 20 lashes with a wet noodle. Anyone who tries to support an opinion with arguments from religion or from moral relativism should get those lashes too. :-)

  62. Dr Benway says:

    Good lord look at all these comments.

    Anyway, I feel sorry for Sam. His book has to be an embarrassment. And yes, I say that without having read it. The marketing hype promises an ethical system derived from science. That’s like promising a perpetual motion machine. Serious people don’t go there.

    Best case scenario might be, “Sam doesn’t actually say we can derive our ethical systems from science; rather that science is essential to the task of translating our values into action…” blah blah blah. That’s a dull thesis that won’t sell many books.

    Somebody wake me after Harris reads David Hume.

  63. JMB says:

    “show me the data”

    I was hoping somebody would give me a citation of a scientific article reporting an experiment addressing morality, discussing the methods, results and conclusions. I find it hard to justify spending the money on a book advocating science based morality when there is no example of an experimental design with results to look at.

    From Sam Harris TED presentation
    http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html

    At the end of the talk he mentions an experiment using MRI (fMRI) to determine how prevalent love for daughters is in different societies, referring to those societies where women are required to wear a burqa. Pay attention to his answer to the question of revising his current thought if the result of the experiment was not what he expected.

    You may wish to review his presentation (available for free), before you shell out the money for his book.

  64. Fifi says:

    JMB – Well there have been lots of experiments regarding how people act or react in certain situations (which is what ethics or “morality” is all about really). Millgram’s experiments being the most famous but then there have been questions arising about how experimental design influences results that are even more relevant in this kind of context. And, obviously, what we know about neurobiology at this point also means that there’s a great deal of debate about how in control and responsible for one’s actions one is – and we can’t divorce this from questions regarding ethics and morality.

    Clearly, as humans, we generally seem to prefer clear, simple rules about how people “should” behave. Just as we all tend to not question people who confirm our personal biases or beliefs as much as we do those that confront them. Human foibles, we all got ‘em and we always seem to get in the most trouble when we forget that.

  65. FiFi’s response to my post – Yes, you hit the nail on the head.

    “Anyone who was being truly science first would proceed with caution and the understanding that science has gotten this wrong before and we can’t be sure that our own emotional/cultural/psychological biases aren’t tainting the science. I’m old enough that I grew up with science (atheist, scientist parents) that was informed by societal/religious prejudices that still linger in some quarters today.”

    Exactly one of my concerns. There are claims that science is “self-correcting”. But then I’m told that “political correctness” is getting in the way of science solving problems. As far as I can see, to many people “political correctness” is the same thing “as awareness that cultural bias skews the test parameters”.

  66. Dr Hall said (I believe paraphrasing Harris)- “Cultural relativism is stupid: we should never accept slavery or female genital mutilation as moral even in the societies that practice them believing they are moral. It is immoral and irrational to accept such practices out of political correctness and unwillingness to offend.”

    Either I’m reading this wrong or it is a straw man. I’m not aware of anyone accepting FGM or Slavery due to PC-ness or not wanting to offend. There are several organizations working to stop FGM. WHO has information of efforts being made and I’m sure a google search would find more. The pivotal question is “what is the most effective way to stop FGM or slavery?” This is clearly within the domains of scientific investigation.

  67. Regarding shelling out money for the book. – That’s what libraries are for. Also, I’m not above finding a seat in Barnes and Noble and reading a chapter or two.

  68. Fifi says:

    Maybe Harris is being misrepresented by Wikipedia but this bit really makes me go…what the bleep?!? Spirituality? Really?

    Spirituality

    Harris wishes to incorporate spirituality in the domain of human reason. He draws inspiration from the practices of Eastern religion, in particular that of meditation, as described principally by Hindu and Buddhist practitioners. By paying close attention to moment-to-moment conscious experience, Harris suggests, it is possible to make our sense of “self” vanish and thereby uncover a new state of personal well-being. Moreover, Harris argues that such states of mind should be subjected to formal scientific investigation, without incorporating the myth and superstition that often accompanies meditation in the religious context. “There is clearly no greater obstacle to a truly empirical approach to spiritual experience than our current beliefs about God,” he writes.[10]p. 214.

    That’s just silly if it’s what he actually believes and it makes me even more dubious about his intent – and like the use of “moral”, the use of “spiritual” does really seem that he just wants to replace religion with a version he likes more. It’s like all those people who claim they’re “spiritual” but not “religious” (meaning they just make up a tailor-made god-type figure).

    One can meditate without needing it to be spiritual (and if one is being science-based it’s not “spiritual” it’s actually just brain exercises and neat feelings you can have when you concentrate a lot for a longish time…they’re illusions). There are good reasons to practice meditation (or at least certain forms of meditation), and some science to support how it changes our brains/minds due to neuroplasticity, but there’s no need to keep something like meditation in a “spiritual” context once we understand what it is and aren’t using it for religious purposes.

  69. Harriet Hall says:

    micheleinmichigan said “I’m not aware of anyone accepting FGM or Slavery due to PC-ness or not wanting to offend.”

    Of course not. And that fact argues against the principle of cultural relativism. The point was that if you accept cultural relativism, logically you would have to accept such practices if any culture practiced them.

  70. Fifi says:

    There’s a good (if short) paragraph at Wikipedia that indicates that Harris has been critiqued by quite a few people for his uneven approach to religions according to whether they’re ones he’s attached to or not.

    And from Skepdic…

    Harris presents himself and atheism as rational, yet he doesn’t apply very rigorous standards of rationality when dealing with the subjects of reincarnation and the paranormal. One reader of the Skeptic’s Dictionary strongly urged me to remove the link to the “Atheist Manifesto.” The reader didn’t think Harris was really an atheist because “Harris believes psi phenomena are likely to be real and accepts Rupert Sheldrake and Dean Radin as credible witnesses on this subject. He also says he believes there may be empirical evidence for reincarnation.” The reader cites a footnote on p. 232 of The End of Faith. I didn’t remove the link to Harris’s manifesto, however. He’s entitled to his views as to what he considers atheism to imply. Anyway, a person can be an atheist and also believe in reincarnation and the paranormal. But Harris seems to claim that it is his rationality that has led him to atheism and should lead any other rational person to the same conclusion.”

    http://www.skepdic.com/news/newsletter74.html#3

    I’m not sure one CAN be an atheist and believe in reincarnation because it involves the idea of a spirit/personality that transcends death and the body, and some greater plan that’s really all very religious.

  71. Fifi says:

    It’s actually a form of cultural relativism to say that making laws to control what women wear (and making it a punishable offense to break the rules) is good when “we” do it and bad when “they” do it. Particularly when those laws may make the most vulnerable and trapped women even more vulnerable and trapped. I find the whole “we’re telling women what to wear to liberate them” a bit like Freedom Is Slavery or War Is Peace. I’m not actually against the whole no religious artifacts worn in school thing when it’s applied equally to all religions.

    Harris can be a cultural relativist himself it seems because of his own biases towards Buddhism and what he beliefs is “spirituality” (of a good kind, apparently)…so much so that he remains open to Hinduism/Buddhism’s most magical myths such as reincarnation and psychic abilities (really, a neurobiologist should know better since so many “supernatural” things of that ilk have been explained).

  72. FiFi regarding the scientific study of spirituality and “It’s like all those people who claim they’re “spiritual” but not “religious” (meaning they just make up a tailor-made god-type figure). ”

    Hmm – Interesting. I think of myself as spirituality but not religious. For me this relates to the search or creation of meaning, inspiration, awe, etc without supernatural beliefs or a preset church ideology. There is also a curiosity about self-identity and to what extent it relates to and/or effects my surroundings in relationship to culture, history, art, family, the future, nature, life, death, etc. All that, is life generally worth living stuff.

    Perhaps this definition of spirituality is somewhat idiosyncratic, though, and I haven’t yet ruled out a customized god figure(s) and, of course, who can resist the trappings of religion, art, music, poetry… but, I haven’t really discussed it with anyone, so I’m not sure what the average person means by spirituality.

    Regardless, I would perhaps have my doubts about the role science would have in studying such contemplations (inventions). I have seen interesting information of the effects of stress or relaxation on cognitive abilities which I suppose could relate to some mindfulness or meditation practices, but when one is talking about contemplations on the experience of life or spirituality as it is experienced with in many religions with all the richness of history, art, family, etc., I wonder if it’s study is somewhat similar to a scientific analysis of a stand-up routine. Perhaps that will be Harris’ next argument. ‘Science can and should decide who is funnier, John Stewart or Stephen Colbert.’

    Or perhaps I am being a bit hard on Harris.

  73. Harriet Hall – on cultural relativism – I was misreading the statement then. My apologies.

  74. JMB says:

    Well there have been lots of experiments regarding how people act or react in certain situations (which is what ethics or “morality” is all about really). Millgram’s experiments being the most famous but then there have been questions arising about how experimental design influences results that are even more relevant in this kind of context. And, obviously, what we know about neurobiology at this point also means that there’s a great deal of debate about how in control and responsible for one’s actions one is – and we can’t divorce this from questions regarding ethics and morality.

    I always thought moral strength meant accepting responsibility regardless of the circumstances, or that you could adhere to moral principles in spite of biology. I also thought that the lesson of Milgram’s experiment was that people could be persuaded to suspend their moral convictions by an authority figure (frankly, by the authority of a scientist) . So if Milgram’s experiment represents science based morality, then in my opinion, science based morality will reveal to us what is mediocre, not what is right (or that you should not allow the authority of a scientist to override your moral convictions).

    As a physician I have had chances to witness people who could stick to their moral convictions in spite of how ill they were. That’s one reason I separate morality from biology. In my opinion, the pinnacle in the moral landscape would be the person who is able to maintain their principles of behavior in spite of the biologic pressures — the statistical outlier data point.

    Regarding shelling out money for the book. – That’s what libraries are for. Also, I’m not above finding a seat in Barnes and Noble and reading a chapter or two.

    I will do my best to hold further comments until I have read the book.

  75. tortorific says:

    I’d like to thank the commenters on this piece for restoring my faith in the skeptical movement. I had ignored the post after I saw that it was yet another completely positive review despite the glaring flaws in the fundamental reasoning of the book. I was starting to feel like skeptical community was giving Harris a free pass because he’s normally one of us.

    1. Harriet Hall says:

      tortorific said, “I’d like to thank the commenters on this piece for restoring my faith in the skeptical movement. I had ignored the post after I saw that it was yet another completely positive review despite the glaring flaws in the fundamental reasoning of the book.”

      Have you even read the book? You destroyed my faith in your skepticism by ignoring a review just because it was positive and by accusing the book of glaring flaws in fundamental reasoning without specifying what you think those flaws are. Other commenters have destroyed my faith in their skepticism by expressing unfounded opinions about a book they have not read. It makes commenters look very foolish when they imagine something they think the book said and knock down a straw man. For instance, Alison said “Sam Harris apparently makes the burka the core example of scientifically-defined moral depravity in his book.” He doesn’t. He only mentions it as one example of something science could study. There isn’t even a listing for “burka” in the index.

  76. JMB – The library suggestion wasn’t meant as a reprimand or to suggest in anyway that I didn’t appreciate your comments. Only that sometime people forget libraries.

  77. Fifi says:

    tortorific – This may also make you feel better….a real discussion of the subject by people who really know their stuff.

    http://www.edge.org/discourse/bb.html

    It’s pretty funny that SBM is promoting a book by a guy who promoted the idea that the supernatural and reincarnation was scientifically possible because the religion he’s into holds those beliefs (he’s an apologist for Buddhism, which is very much a religion despite how many Westerners want to pretend it isn’t and/or is really science). Talk about confirmation bias in action!

    I also find it interesting that everyone kind of glosses over the fact that we already have bodies that concern themselves with matters of science and ethics – medical ethics, which is where science, society and ethics intersect. If you want to see how science can inform an ethical decision and what it looks like in action, you don’t have to look far. (And anyone with a real interest in ethics and science knows that many issues which seem simple on the surface are actually much more complex when really considered.) But, of course, Harris isn’t really interested in ethical action but in being a moral authority – which kind of stinks of fascism really. It’s not that surprising that he’s found a scapegoat to blame rather than dealing with the complexity of reality.

  78. Medical ethics is a great example of an existing scientifically-informed discipline.

    Moral relativism seems to be a giant straw man (though I still haven’t read the book). One of the first things I learned when I got to college was that it was perfectly fine to compare one culture or society to another and determine one to be superior. You don’t look at details like what women wear. You look at bigger questions like whether all members of society have access to justice. If a society is meeting everyone’s needs and arranging for full participation of all members, the rest is just colourful detail.

    When I harked back to the UN Human Development Index rating in my first comment I wasn’t being facetious. It’s new in that the HDI has only been used since 1990, but the concepts are not new and they certainly were not dependent on Sam Harris’s exciting new insights. A country gets a high HDI when life expectancy at birth is high, adults are literate and children are in school, and the GDP per capita is high.

    Since Sam Harris apparently makes the burka the core example of scientifically-defined moral depravity in his book, let’s look at the GDI (the HDI adjusted for sex inequality) instead. Here are the top 10 in the 2009 report:
    Australia 0.966
    Norway 0.961
    Iceland 0.959
    Canada 0.959
    Sweden 0.956
    France 0.956
    Netherlands 0.954
    Finland 0.954
    Spain 0.949
    Ireland 0.948

    (The US is 19th with a GDI of 0.942. Its HDI is better, giving them a ranking of 13th, but apparently their sex equality sucks.)

    The bottom ten in 2009 were as follows:
    Mozambique 0.395
    Burundi 0.390
    Burkina Faso 0.383
    Guinea-Bissau 0.381
    Chad 0.380
    Central African Republic 0.354
    Sierra Leone 0.354
    Mali 0.353
    Afghanistan 0.310
    Niger 0.308

    Gosh, burqa-infested Afghanistan is right there at second to last of all countries for which there were figures. Interestingly, it is also second to last before Niger in HDI, before correction for gender inequality.

    Conclusion:
    Afghanistan is not as good a country as Australia. Not only are its people materially poor, they are also uneducated and die young. They are hampered in efforts to improve their condition by sex inequality.

    There. We got to the same place as Sam Harris. We didn’t have to invoke scientific proof that burqas are bad to do it, and we didn’t derail the conversation into questions of moral superiority or whether science gets to determine what your values are.

    So what is it that Sam Harris actually adds to the discussion?

  79. Fifi says:

    Alison – More than being a strawman, it’s become sort of cliched ideological retort by those who want to try to define reality according to their biases (much like accusing someone of being “PC” has become a cliched retort if someone dares question the narrative being promoted). It’s ridiculous and is promoting fantasy and doublespeak over reality and honest discourse when people accuse others of “moral relativism” when they’re being moral relativists themselves. (“It’s good when we tell women what to wear, it’s bad when they do it”…that’s pretty much the definition of moral relativism.)

  80. Harriet Hall,

    If we cannot gain anything from a book review, and if questions generated by a book review are not worth answering, why do book reviews at all?

    You can delete “Sam Harris apparently makes the burka the core example of scientifically-defined moral depravity in his book” completely and my question about what Sam Harris brings to the table that the UN has not already still stands. You haven’t answered.

    When someone reads the Da Vinci Code or The Celestine Prophecy and waves their hands about all the cool things they learned in it, but cannot respond meaningfully to detailed questions and can only say “well, you have to read the book” it suggests to me that the person didn’t understand it.

  81. Fifi says:

    Dr Hall – Apparently you’re entirely unaware of the discussion between both scientists and skeptics regarding Harris’ ideas – which is kind of odd. Either that or you chose to totally ignore it in favor of serving up a puff piece because of your own confirmation bias (since you don’t seem to be able to read Harris’ book critically because his beliefs align with your own). Interesting that you focus on “you haven’t read the book” as your defense rather than actually addressing the very valid critiques of the ideas you’re present as being Harris’ ideas or argument for why science should replace religion. You know, a real atheist wouldn’t need to replace religion or think a “moral” vacuum would suddenly occur if we don’t (but then Harris seems more like he gives lip service to atheism while attributing scientific validity to the beliefs of his adopted religious practice, including silliness such as reincarnation and psychic abilities).

  82. … which doesn’t mean I think that Sam Harris’ book is on the level of the Celestine Prophecy or that you don’t understand it. Just that I can’t tell the difference, which doesn’t particularly motivate me to read it.

  83. Always Curious says:

    I spent quite some time on topic of how science and religion interplay. In a general sense, the interaction of science and philosophy or morality is largely the same. To the extent that we are all human, we cannot be entirely rational beings. Science, as we generally define it, demands this objective viewpoint from us. But our emotions and social awareness color our thinking and motives.

    Science and morality both need one another to exist, but not to be too dependent on one another. Science can get carried away in its quest for knowledge and inadvertently do terrible things (possibly justified by the greater good or a long term future good). Morality (possibly fueled by emotion) needs to be there to question if things are getting too out of hand in the present.

    On the other hand, the subjectivity and universality of morality is an open philosophical question. Philosophy can quickly get lost in how to define essential terms and ideas. Science (or at least empiricism) needs to stand by sometimes to demand application and results (lest we float about arguing over “universals”).

    Hume said something to the effect of ‘you can’t derive ethics from a list of facts’. And I would add [if Hume didn't], you can’t derive facts from a list of ethics either.

  84. Honestly, I think all the “You haven’t read the book, you can’t question or discuss the basic premise” is a bit rubbish. I’ve now seen two interviews with Harris on his book and it’s clear that his intention is to stir the pot and/or raise eyebrows*, if not more.

    If scientist or skeptics are as willing and able to change their minds in response to evidence or a plausible argument as the writers on SBM claim, then there should be no concern with someone offering an opinion on the book’s basic premise before reading the book.

    Not to mention, it’s silly, to stick your stob in a beehive and then complain about the bees.

    *depending upon which colloquialism you prefer.

  85. Harriet Hall says:

    The reason for a book review is to let readers know about a book they might want to read. It is impossible to fully explain the arguments of a book in a review, and the arguments here are particularly complex, nuanced, and even counterintuitive. I have tried to answer some of the objections, and Harris does a much better job of answering most objections in his book. A number of straw man arguments have been presented that could have been avoided by reading the book. I don’t think I failed to understand the book. You can accuse me of being naive and gullible, but far greater minds than mine have been impressed by Harris’ thesis; I mentioned that the book changed Richard Dawkins’ mind. I have no idea what Harris thinks about reincarnation or psychic abilities: he doesn’t mention anything like that in this book. I judged the book solely on its content, not on any preconceived opinion about the author. The book certainly doesn’t suggest either that Harris holds any religious beliefs or that he wants to replace religion with science. It only suggests that he wants to apply the best principles of critical thinking to every sphere of human inquiry.

  86. Fifi says:

    It is very rubbish because it’s not like Harris is actually advancing any new ideas or we need to indulge in some fantasy of what happens when science, ethics and society meet. Seriously, this is a science-based medicine blog and the fact that medical ethics exists is being totally ignored! I can remember discussions about science, ethics and social responsibility from when I was a kid back in the 1970s. But then again, that was a discussion of ethics not “morals” (a highly religious, unnecessarily religious in fact, framework in which to discuss ethics and ethical behavior vis a vis science).

  87. After all the questions I found myself longing for a review of the book that offered a more detailed critique of it. Here is one that other’s might find interesting. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/books/review/Appiah-t.html

  88. Fifi says:

    Nice appeal to authority there Dr Hall – Dawkins says it’s good, it must be!

    So your “review” really was just uncritical promotional fluff then and not intended to be an actual critical read of the book?

    And because you agree with what you believe he’s saying in the book you consider the fact that he’s not actually scientifically rigorous with his own beliefs to not be relevant? And you consider it irrelevant that he’s a cultural relativist when it comes to Buddhism and science, yet you quickly pick up and repeat his accusations that anyone who disagrees with him is being a cultural relativist?

  89. Fifi says:

    It’s kind of funny really that Dr Hall is just pretending that Harris’ belief in woo and softness on Eastern religions is irrelevant.
    And that his quite incorrect and highly romantic belief that Buddhism is a “religion of peace” is irrelevant when he’s promoting that another religion is the opposite. There are both fundies and libertines in every religion – including Buddhism (which has a pretty long history of sexism, including sexual abuse).

  90. Harriet Hall says:

    “So your “review” really was just uncritical promotional fluff”

    I don’t think so.

    Mikee is the only commenter so far who has said that he has actually read (most of) the book. Arguably, his comments should be more credible than others. What he said bears repeating in its entirety:

    “I have almost finished reading Sam Harris’s book and I think Harriet’s review does it justice, although as she herself has pointed out a review can hardly communicate many of the nuances of Harris’s arguments.
    I suspect many people resist Sam’s ideas because many of them confront what is going on in society and many of the “problems” identified will be extremely challenging to correct. However, this does not mean that his arguments are wrong.
    For those who feel compelled to disagree with Sam’s ideas and Harriet’s excellent review of the book, I would suggest that you read it yourselves and see if your arguments hold up against Sam’s views and research.
    Carl Sagan described science as a candle in the dark. Sam Harris turns science into a searchlight, peering into areas of society most other scientists choose not to look into. Bravo!”

  91. Fifi says:

    Dr Hall, this kind of discussion about ethics and science is hardly new (though it may be to you) so trying to brush off all criticisms with “many people resist Sam’s ideas because many of them confront what is going on in society and many of the “problems” identified will be extremely challenging to correct.” is just silly since most of the critiques of the ideas he presents in this book are by people who actually deal with the complexity of the cultural and social challenges facing an increasingly small and overpopulated world where competition for resources is becoming fiercer. If anything, Harris’ response is simplistic. And he ignores the actual science. So, I’m sure Harris’ arguments were very convincing to you because they affirmed your already held beliefs – trying to brush off all the valid critiques in the way you are isn’t actually a response but a defense (by avoidance) of your own confirmation bias and the fact that you weren’t reading the book critically and presented it here to promote it and not to really analyze or critique it. A skeptic questions their own beliefs too, not just those of people who disagree.

    You also continually ignore the fact that medical ethics already ponders these questions with no need for “moral authority” or any such authoritarian religious garbage. It’s pretty clear that Harris plays fast and loose with both his definitions of science AND religion (and the facts).

    C’mon…how about a HuffPo article by Harris about Buddhism and science? I’ve nothing against scientists and religious people talking to each other and I think studying the neurobiology of experiences that religions like to claim are “spiritual” interesting but Harris has obviously drunk the kool-aid when it comes to Buddhism.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/a-contemplative-science_b_15024.html

  92. From the NYT article cited by micheleinmichigan:
    “The most compelling strand in “The Moral Landscape” is its unspooling diatribe against relativism. …

    You might suppose, reading this book, that this anti-relativism was controversial among philosophers. So it may be worth pointing out that a recent survey of a large proportion of the world’s academic philosophers revealed that they are more than twice as likely to favor moral realism — the view that there are moral facts — than to favor moral anti-realism. Two thirds of them, it turns out, are also what we call cognitivists, believing that many (and perhaps all) moral claims are either true or false. And Harris himself concedes that few philosophers “have ever answered to the name of ‘moral relativist.’ ” Given that, he might have spent more time with some of the many arguments against relativism that philosophers have offered. If he had, he might have noticed that you can hold that there are moral truths that can be rationally investigated without holding that the experimental sciences provide the right methods for doing so.”

    Kwame Anthony Appiah — the philosopher who read the book and criticised it for the NYT — appears to be agreeing with me that moral relativism is a straw man and can be dispensed with without recourse to the neurosciences.

    “There is, for example, a movement in contemporary philosophy and economics known as “the capabilities approach,” which takes seriously the question of identifying the components of well-being and measuring them. But neither of the two leading exponents of this approach — the philosopher and economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher and classicist Martha Nussbaum — gets a mention in the book.”

    This comment is particularly interesting because it was Amartya Sen’s work that provided the underlying conceptual framework for the HDI I discussed above. (Nussbaum is an excellent writer. Her book “The Fragility of Goodness” informed my approach to a good life — which according to sindegra’s comment above, makes me trendily in tune with contemporary philosophy.)

    It seems, according to this particular philosopher who read the book, that the specific weaknesses I asked you about were not, in fact, adequately addressed in the book. So “reading the book” would not have helped.

    The NYT critic does say that the book is worth reading because there’s lots of fun stuff in it about neuroscience — which happens to be something the author has advanced degrees in, unlike philosophy.

  93. Dr Benway says:

    Scientific facts and hypotheses are always in the indicative voice.

    Moral statements are always in the imperative voice even when they superficially might seem otherwise –e.g., “x-action is good” can be stated, “one ought to do x.”

    An argument with major and minor premises in the indicative voice always leads to a conclusion in the same voice.

    tl;dr: You can’t get “ought” from “is.”

    Tell me how Harris has vanquished Hume’s guillotine and perhaps I will take a look at his book.

  94. Harriet Hall says:

    You can’t get “ought” from “is” but we already all have “oughts.” The fact of “oughts” is a given, although the specific content of the “oughts” varies. People have a moral sense (a sense that there are things they “ought” or “ought not” to do – which might include an “ought” like feeding infants and an “ought not” like murdering your wife in her sleep when you’re angry with her), and religious or philosophical systems of morality are only ways we try to justify or rationalize to come up with alleged reasons for what we instinctively “know”or “feel” is right or wrong. Harris proposes to study our “oughts,” to ask if specific actions achieve what our “oughts” say they are trying to achieve, and to seek a non-absolutist, non-cultural-relativist, objective standard to judge whether one person’s “ought” is preferable to another’s.

  95. Dr Benway says:

    Naturalistic fallacy.

    1. Harriet Hall says:

      No, I don’t think it’s naturalistic fallacy. I’m not suggesting that our moral sense and our human values are good just because they are natural. I’m just saying that it is an observable fact that humans have a moral sense and that it is something we can study. We can try to reach a consensus on what is moral based on rational inquiry and testing hypotheses rather than on irrational grounds like religious authority that only lead to irresolvable differences. Evolution has programmed us for a tendency to some behaviors that many of us think are not moral. We can learn to rise above our origins, overcome our natural propensities, and aspire to become more moral by our own standards once we figure out what those standards are. Evolution doesn’t just produce survival of the fittest; it also produces the survival of what Stephen Jay Gould called spandrels that accidentally came along for the ride. Evolution made us susceptible to errors of thinking like being overly impressed by anecdotal evidence, which may have given us a survival advantage earlier in human history but is now a disadvantage. We can overcome those errors with critical thinking and the scientific method. The whole premise of this blog is that we “ought” to aspire to that. I don’t think there is any way to prove that with a scientific experiment, but I think we can nevertheless agree that the scientific method is the most reliable way to find out how the world works, and I think we can agree that it is “better” to use it than not to.

  96. Dr Benway says:

    I’m just saying that it is an observable fact that humans have a moral sense and that it is something we can study.

    No argument from me on that.

    We can try to reach a consensus on what is moral …

    So far so good.

    …based on…

    Uh oh. What does “based on” actually signify? Perhaps you mean, “informed by.”

    …rational inquiry and testing hypotheses…

    Yeah that’s the methodological naturalism we all know and love –our favorite trier of fact, eh? But it’s not much good at “ought.”

    …rather than on irrational grounds like religious authority that only lead to irresolvable differences.

    Religious authority is very tricky business indeed.

    But dislike for some alternative basis of moral authority (e.g., religion, cultural relativism) does not justify Sam’s conclusion, “therefore science will tell us what is good.”

    So long as we’re into simplifying profound problems, why not simply say, as you did above, “we can try to reach a consensus, for now, on what is good” without throwing about words like “basis” and “authority”?

  97. bluskool says:

    Yeah that’s the methodological naturalism we all know and love –our favorite trier of fact, eh? But it’s not much good at “ought.”

    Rational inquiry and hypothesis testing are “oughts” themselves. What good would it do to provide a rationality for valuing rationality?

    This whole is/ought distinction is just a way to confuse the issue. It’s a smoke screen for the moral skeptic. It is either true or it is false that certain actions are good. Good with respect to certain values (well-being, for instance), yes, but having certain values simply must be built into any realm of human knowledge. “Ought you to be good” is about as important a question as “ought you to value empirical evidence” or “ought you to value certain pieces of paper as money.”

    Can the moral skeptic ask why “well-being” or “doing good” should be valued? Of course, but it is equally valid for me to ask why they don’t apply the same level of skepticism to all domains of human knowledge. Would any of the moral skeptics here be outraged if someone were to suggest that “empirical evidence” be valued?

  98. Fifi says:

    Is it really a “fact” that we have a “moral sense” though? Define “moral sense” please. It’s certainly not a “sense” according to the common usage of “sense” in a biological context (hearing, sight, touch, etc). Do you mean a sense of right or wrong? We teach our children right from wrong, we don’t just leave it to develop on its own. Is that really a sense of right and wrong, or a knowledge of reward and punishment associated with certain behaviors? Studies have shown us that people behave very differently when faced with choices regarding fairness (theft, sharing, etc) when they know they’re being watched and when they aren’t. (I have no idea how rigorous it was but I remember reading about one study where a vast majority of male college students said they’d rape a woman if they could get away with it.)

    Interestingly the “Golden Rules” you’ve proposed and consider self evident Dr Hall seem more based in religious beliefs (that you’ve internalized, as have many, if not most, of us) than they do in what we’ve learned about the social behaviors and needs of primates, or what we’ve also learned through science about how people behave (or the variety of ways that people behave). Just because they’re your internalized beliefs and feel “innate” to you, doesn’t actually mean they’re universal.

    1. Harriet Hall says:

      Fifi said “the “Golden Rules” you’ve proposed and consider self evident Dr Hall seem more based in religious beliefs”

      No, it’s the other way around: the religious beliefs are derived from self-evident human moral standards.

      Humans clearly have an intuitive moral sense that is due to nature, not nurture. There have been many scientific experiments that support that. One of the more intriguing ones asked that question about letting one person die on a train track if it will save five others. Religion and education have not taught us what we should do when faced with that dilemma, but people in all cultures are more likely to reject the “one life to save five” if it requires personally pushing someone to his death than if it merely requires changing a switch.

  99. Dr Benway says:

    Fifi, values are motives, They make creatures move. Without them, organisms would just sit there doing nothing.

    Can the moral skeptic ask why “well-being” or “doing good” should be valued?

    Circular reasoning.

  100. Fifi says:

    And one can easily argue that it’s actually a “moral sense” that leads highly educated, young (often Persian, not Arabic) men from wealthy nations such as Saudi Arabia or the UK to commit suicide bombings. A sense of both being virtuously heroic in the eyes of your peers and doing something for the greater good of your people is just as promoted by the US military as it is by Al Quaeda. Young people here are doing the same thing when they join the army (if it’s not out of necessity) or join a militant protest group. Revenge and fighting the enemy are often seen and felt to be very morally virtuous – though it’s generally important to view the other as being somehow less human or “moral” to justify doing to them something that would be unacceptable to do to their in-group. In wars, both sides consider themselves as being “moral” and the other side “immoral’. There are many people who would counter that perpetuating tribalism and xenophobia under the guise of promoting science is actually highly immoral because it’s harmful to the common good – not to mention harmful to the practice of honest science. (Though good for Harris’ bank account and Harris in terms of whipping up controversy to sell books and giving him status. Though I don’t doubt he has a great deal of faith in his hypothesis and his own “morality”.)

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