Baggini vs. Krauss on science, philosophy, and morality

Several readers sent me a link to yesterday’s Guardian dialogue between philosopher Julian Baggini and physicist Lawrence Krauss, “Philosophy v. science: Which can answer the big questions of life?” You should read it.

Baggini has previously taken strong stands against “scientism” (which he defines in this piece as the insistence “that, if a question isn’t amenable to scientific solution, it is not a serious question at all”), and Krauss has disparaged philosophy (though he backtracked a little subsequently). Despite these differences their dialogue is surprisingly good and productive, resulting in some fundamental agreements.  Both men make good points.

Baggini uses, as an example of a question that isn’t susceptible to a scientific answer, “What is the moral thing to do in a given situation?”. But he agrees, as we all do, that the answers to such questions can be informed by science (which I define broadly as empirical study resulting in verifiable information about the universe):

[JB]: My contention is that the chief philosophical questions are those that grow up without leaving home, important questions that remain unanswered when all the facts are in. Moral questions are the prime example. No factual discovery could ever settle a question of right or wrong. But that does not mean that moral questions are empty questions or pseudo-questions. We can think better about them and can even have more informed debates by learning new facts. What we conclude about animal ethics, for example, has changed as we have learned more about non-human cognition.

When Sam Harris came out with The Moral Landscape, maintaining that morality did have a scientific basis, requiring the answer to the question “What maximizes well being?”, I was dubious.  After all, even that requires a value judgment: increasing “well being” is what we think is moral. In most situations that’s true, for our notion of morality may be coterminus with well being. But that might not always be the case. And how do we quantify different forms of well-being when we have to trade them off against each other?

Now, however, I’m coming around to Sam’s view.  People’s view of what is “moral” ultimately must rest on one or more of three things: an appeal to the consequences, an appeal to some authority (like Scripture), or some innate feeling instilled by our genes in combination with our environment (in other words, morality lies in our neurons). Sam’s answer is a combination of the first and third, but regardless, both the first and third are susceptible to empirical investigation.  (For most people Scripture is ruled out as a source of authority, simply because almost nobody—with the exception of wackos like William Lane Craig—adheres scrupulously to the morality embodied in sacred books).

In the end, then, it is possible, though not yet feasible, for science to determine what is moral, simply by investigating the neurological and evolutionary bases of our value judgments. In the meantime, we employ philosophy informed by science.  In the end, it will be the other way around: moral questions will be answered by science informed by philosophy, for, after all, it is philosophy that enables us to think hard enough to pose moral dilemmas and discern what people mean when they say “right” and “wrong.”

The two have a similar exchange over the morality of homosexuality. Krauss asserts that it can’t be immoral because it has a biological basis and, judging empirically, is not harmful:

[LK]: Take homosexuality, for example. Iron age scriptures might argue that homosexuality is “wrong”, but scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately “wrong”. In fact, I think you actually accede to this point about the impact of science when you argue that our research into non-human cognition has altered our view of ethics.

Baggini replies with the time-honored response, which at first sounds reasonable:

Your example of homosexuality is a case in point. I agree that the main reasons for thinking it is wrong are linked with outmoded ways of thought. But the way you put it, it is because science shows us that homosexual behaviour “is completely natural”, “has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts”, is “biologically based” and “not harmful” that we can conclude it is “not innately ‘wrong'”. But this mixes up ethical and scientific forms of justification. Homosexuality is morally acceptable, but not for scientific reasons. Right and wrong are not simply matters of evolutionary impacts and what is natural. There have been claims, for example, that rape is both natural and has evolutionary advantages. But the people who made those claims were also at great pains to stress this did not make them right – efforts that critics sadly ignored. Similar claims have been made for infidelity. What science tells us about the naturalness of certain sexual behaviours informs ethical reflection, but does not determine its conclusions. We need to be clear on this.

But on what grounds, then, do we determine whether homosexuality is right or wrong? It must rest on an appeal to the consequences (which is an empirical and scientific question), on the way most people feel about homosexuality (something that is a combination of our genes and our environment, and coded in our neurons), on sacred books and dogma, or on a combination of these. Ruling out the third, the first two are, in effect, scientific questions.

Now that doesn’t meant that science can actually answer these questions, particularly if they involve evolution and neurobiology. What it means is that in principle science must be is the ultimate arbiter of moral questions.  And I think Baggini realizes this, for I left out the last sentence in his response above:

[JB]. . .It’s one thing to accept that one day these issues might be better addressed by scientists than philosophers, quite another to hand them over prematurely.

Here both Baggini and Krauss seem to agree that even the toughest philosophical questions might one day be amenable to science:

[LK]: Where I might disagree is the extent to which this remains time-invariant. What is not scientifically tractable today may be so tomorrow. We don’t know where the insights will come from, but that is what makes the voyage of discovery so interesting. And I do think factual discoveries can resolve even moral questions.

As for ethics, I think in principle it might be best to jettison completely our notions of morality, and simply appeal to consequences of behavior and how we regard them. That, after all, is the ineluctable conclusion reached if one is an incompatibilist like myself who doesn’t believe in free will. Krauss agrees:

[LK]: Moreover, that many moral convictions vary from society to society means that they are learned and, therefore, the province of psychology. Others are more universal and are, therefore, hard-wired – a matter of neurobiology. A retreat to moral judgment too often assumes some sort of illusionary belief in free will which I think is naive.

Now I’m not naive enough to think that we should immediately begin dispensing with the notion of morality and moral judgment, much less “right” and “wrong”. These ideas are so ingrained in all human society that discarding them is well nigh impossible, at least for the moment.  But in the end, we aren’t responsible for our actions in the way most people think, for they stem from aspects of our biology that we don’t understand and can’t control.

And for those of you who say that “is” doesn’t produce “ought,” I’d like to ask you this: “well, how do we determine ‘oughts'”?  They don’t come from thin air, and they don’t come from free will.  They come from human judgment, which is a result of our genes and our environments. Why is that not, at least in principle, susceptible to scientific investigation?

Where does this leave philosophy? As Baggini admits, many philosophical questions will ultimately yield to science:

[LK] . . . What isn’t ruled out by the laws of physics is, in some sense, inevitable. So, right now, I cannot imagine that I could computationally determine the motion of all the particles in the room in which I am breathing air, so that I have to take average quantities and do statistics in order to compute physical behaviour. But, one day, who knows?

[JB]: Who knows? Indeed. Which is why philosophy needs to accept it may one day be made redundant. But science also has to accept there may be limits to its reach.

Yes, there may be some things that are forever beyond the research of science (how life originated may be one such issue). But that doesn’t mean that those questions can be answered by other means, or that the limits are based on anything but our technical and perceptual abilities.

I think philosophy will always have a place in scientific discourse, although, like theology, that place will shrink as science advances. But even in the end, when we have a complete knowledge of human behavior and how it’s based on the molecular configuration of our brains interacting via our senses with the molecular configuration of our environments, philosophers will still be important for teaching us how to think hard, think logically, and figure out which questions are worth asking.

In the meantime, it would be nice if readers weighed in on the question of whether morality really is, in the end, at least partly independent of questions that can be studied via science.

But do read the Krauss/Baggini discussion: it’s one of the better things I’ve seen online in a while.

263 Comments

  1. Posted September 9, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    The way I see it is that morality (or ethics – I don’t distinguish them) is about how we live together without destroying ourselves. Subsequently, it becomes a piece of social technology, *in the limit* as the social sciences improve. Meanwhile, there are rules of thumb, heuristics, insights from great thinkers, etc. which can all be thought about, adopted, debated and so forth. This the same as any other area of technology: one starts with a craft, and when it becomes too onerous one looks to science to see what is known about that part of the world. I already see this process beginning: movements like the capabilities approach as an attempt to see what allows humans to live together. For those of who you who think other animals, the rest of the biosphere, etc. may have value in the same sense, you’re right – but how to properly expand this sphere is very difficult – even more than with just humans as a consideration.

  2. SelfAwarePatterns
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    I think the current definition of morality is a compromise to allow us to have one name for a variety of strategies on how to live.

    If your strategy is to maximize our individual and collective wellbeing, then I think that’s definitely something that can be shaped by empirical investigation.

    If your strategy is to live by what is pleasing to God, then no amount of empirical investigation can resolve differences, except perhaps to possibly convince you to switch strategies.

  3. Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Science tells us there are no such things as moral truths.

    One decides what one would most like to do in any given situation. One can inform oneself with the preferences of others, traditions, mores, laws,or anything else you may want to consider. But in the end, you do what you most want, and that’s that.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      “But in the end, you do what you most want, and that’s that.”

      I am probably misunderstanding you here, but this seems wrong to me. I, and I am sure most people, do things all the time in a way that I would rather have done differently, or not at all, because I feel compelled to by my learned+evolved sense of morality.

      In a way morality is constraining yourself from doing what you most want to do. Or maybe not? The more I think about it, in most situations what prevents me from doing something immoral is that I can’t stand the thought of having impacted other people in a way that is considered immoral. And for more extreme immoral acts it is a more visceral negative feeling.

      So maybe you are right.

      • Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        Our conscious lives are nothing but a navigation of competing desires.

        A young child in bed may have an understandable desire to urinate without leaving the bed. But a slightly older child will have a stronger desire to not sleep in a cold, wet, smelly bed, and so choose to make the trek down the hall to the toilet.

        It is quite understandable to desire to not cause harm to others, even if for the purely selfish reason of wishing to avoid, as the CIA calls it, “blowback.”

        Indeed, with but a single exception, you would be wise to keep your desire to prevent causing harm to others your top priority. And that exception would be in cases where intervening to protect yourself or others from harm would also cause harm

        If everybody’s primary desire was, “do not do unto others as they do not wish to be done unto,” intentional evil would vanish. I don’t know about you, but I prefer living in a world where more people wish such a thing than fewer.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • joe piecuch
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

          “If everybody’s primary desire was, “do not do unto others as they do not wish to be done unto,” intentional evil would vanish.”

          it’s not difficult to come up with examples that falsify that statement: say, public mass killers with fantasies of going down in a hail of bullets.

          “Indeed, with but a single exception, you would be wise to keep your desire to prevent causing harm to others your top priority. And that exception would be in cases where intervening to protect yourself or others from harm would also cause harm.”

          but i generally agree with you there. however,

          “It is quite understandable to desire to not cause harm to others, even if for the purely selfish reason of wishing to avoid, as the CIA calls it, “blowback.””

          i like putting it a different way: live a life that avoids as much as possible the infliction of suffering, doing so as an end in itself, not just from fear of retribution.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted September 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

            When we feel sexual attraction we don’t think it’s because we want to pass on our genes. There are proximate and ultimate causes involved.

            The same with feeling it is a just end to do no harm, we may not be conscious of fear of retribution. But if there is a warm feeling in our heart when we do good, it is there because at some point in our evolutionary past the advantage of not being in continual conflict with others selected that trait. Ultimately we choose to forego some selfish gratification because it confers one or more long term advantages that trump fleeting pleasure, such as saving energy, increasing access to communal resources, promoting cooperation, and increased security.

            • joe piecuch
              Posted September 9, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

              i generally agree with you, but i don’t know that what you suggest is always the case. say my cat likes to go out in the yard to hunt and kill lizards; say that i think it’s adorable the way he stalks and catches them, throws them around, and then tears them apart. but i recognise, as a rational man of science, that the lizard feels pain and is suffering in the grips of my cat, so i choose to keep my cat under control and forego the pleasure of watching the spectacle, in the interest of sparing the lizard that suffering. what long term advantage does that decision confer upon me?

              • corio37
                Posted September 9, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

                It prevents you from feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed due to the cognitive dissonance between what you enjoy and what you recognise is appropriate behaviour for a civilised person. Why should that not be a perfectly valid motive?

              • joe piecuch
                Posted September 9, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

                i suppose perhaps it would be in most cases, but say that i think those concerns are PETA-style insanity?

              • darrelle
                Posted September 9, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

                You are very persistent, I’ll give you that. It just doesn’t seem healthy though.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted September 9, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

                possibly not, although it doesn’t really take up much of my time. the long range hope is that maybe it will eventually be healthy for the lizards. suffering isn’t restricted to humans.

              • Jamie
                Posted September 9, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

                If you really think those concerns are PETA-style insanity then you are not likely to actually do what you are positing… it becomes something of an empirical question at that point. Do people with similar beliefs also forbid their cats? or is there some reason you are not articulating (possibly not aware of) for your (imagined) actions… Thought experiments have limits beyond which they are not useful.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted September 9, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

                “If you really think those concerns are PETA-style insanity then you are not likely to actually do what you are positing…”

                indeed not. it’s a bit of devil’s advocacy in the interest of furthering the discussion about morality and suffering.

        • darrelle
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

          Ben Goren,

          In that rambling I wasn’t really thinking in terms of ultimate causes, or explanations for how it is that our behaviors evolved. Just thinking along lines of what my conscious emotions are in such circumstances. Or even thinking through a scenario where I do something very immoral.

          Thinking about it, it seems probable that a large driver of moral behavior is a “desire” to avoid unpleasant emotions. Of course there are always people who fall outside the norm.

          I couldn’t agree more with your stated preference. I often use that very concept in arguments ranging from politics, religion, economics, to education. Which are all related of course.

        • Posted September 10, 2012 at 1:52 am | Permalink

          Hat off for Ben Goren.

    • Posted September 10, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      +1

      It always bothers me when smart people avoid saying what you did in your first sentence. Morality isn’t a matter of science because it isn’t a matter of fact – it’s *made up.*

      • RWO
        Posted September 10, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        The common sense Buddhism that precedes mystical added-on woo, as well as the Tao, are unbeatable common sense guides to conscious living expressed in elegant simplicity.

        Cats behaving like cats is not a matter for moral judgement. Humans enjoying the suffering a predator causes prey is. Humans fascinated when initially viewing the spectacle of a predator conquering prey is natural, understandable; humans studying predator/prey behavior to acquire knowledge and understanding is science; humans who enjoy witnessing animals viciously attack other animals at a minimum lack some measure of empathy. I am being as kind toward persons like this as I can be.

        • joe piecuch
          Posted September 10, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

          “Cats behaving like cats is not a matter for moral judgement. Humans enjoying the suffering a predator causes prey is. Humans fascinated when initially viewing the spectacle of a predator conquering prey is natural, understandable; humans studying predator/prey behavior to acquire knowledge and understanding is science; humans who enjoy witnessing animals viciously attack other animals at a minimum lack some measure of empathy.”

          i agree with you, of course, and as i hope is obvious from the context of my remarks preceding the described scenario.

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted September 11, 2012 at 12:23 am | Permalink

            Morality is a matter of actions not attitudes. I watched an old movie last light – Patriot Games – and greatly enjoyed it. I doubt my feelings were much different from the Saturday afternoon crowd at the Colosseum 1900 years ago.

            Personally I have a soft spot for living creatures. I always rescue moths, earwigs, centipedes etc that end up in the house. But suppose I see a fly struggling in a spider’s web (or, if you prefer Cinemascope, a zebra about to be brought down by a lioness). I can imagine these moral attitudes. Should I:

            1. interfere to save the prey
            2. not interfere but beat myself up over it, or shed a furtive tear
            3. not interfere and just scrupulously ignore it
            4. allow myself to study it, but refuse to enjoy the studying
            5. ditto, but enjoy
            6. allow myself to catch another fly to observe it in the web (as 4 or 5)
            7. film it on my phone for later interest/amusement
            8. sweep the lot, spider and all, into a dustpan and chuck the twitching remains into the garbage?

            My wife is an 8 (I don’t know what that translates to in the zebra-lion scenario…) I’m somewhere in the 3, 4, 5 range.

  4. Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    My working hypothesis is that science can study morality in much the same way as science can study the mating strategy of bower birds.

    My thinking being that building bowers for the birds and making morally significant decisions for humans are both parts of the extended phenotypes of the respective species.

    One could, I think, study the effectiveness of various bower strategies in terms of mating success, and the effectiveness of moral decisions in humans as surviving within social situations, including (but not confined to) the effectiveness of moral decision making in attracting and keeping mates able and willing to both breed and bring up kids to:-

    1) Have the sort of genetic make-up that might predispose them to making effective moral decisions

    2) Help nurture and sustain the kids, including nurturing moral decision that gain status in the community, and the related desideratum of making the sort of moral decisions that will lead to them being attractive to the opposite sex.

    This hypothesis does depend on the idea that to some degree moral decision making is sexually selected for, but that is an idea that I find intuitively attractive.

    David B

  5. Patrick
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    “And for those of you who say that “is” doesn’t produce “ought,” I’d like to ask you this: “well, how do we determine ‘oughts’”? They don’t come from thin air, and they don’t come from free will. They come from human judgment, which is a result of our genes and our environments. Why is that not, at least in principle, susceptible to scientific investigation?”

    This response doesn’t work. There is a difference between scientifically determining what we “ought” to do, and scientifically determining why we think we “ought” to do something.

    In my opinion, the first question is probably unanswerable by any line of inquiry, scientific or not, because its probably gibberish. “Ought” probably cannot exist without further information on the preferences from which the “ought” arises.

    • Alex T
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      I think that JAC (and to some extend Harris) is saying that the “ought” arises because of our observations of the world and our beliefs about the consequences of certain actions. Both of those aren’t merely informed by science but start to seem an awful lot like science itself (broadly construed). I don’t know that it’s answerable today but that doesn’t mean it’s gibberish.

  6. Marjorie Spencer
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    As someone who taught ethics for many years, I have no problem saying that science illuminates morality in many ways, particularly when new facts let us re-frame the question altogether. Here’s the “but” – we teach people to be moral in an analytic way, not just by rote, by asking them what they’d do in a case where moral principles clash. Initially that question often confounds them and leads to a regression while they consider on what basis principle A might trump principle B. Once the paralysis wears off, the question becomes Do I have to do what I don’t want to do, or can I rationally do what what I do want to do?

    That gets us down to the nature of moral principles: are they built on authority or are they designed to _be_ authority? If the latter, at least they are voluntary (in the legal sense). But where I am required by my own moral sense to do what goes against animal self-interest, things get hairy. If you want science to replace philosophy on matters of morality, it would be useful if it could re-frame principles without the authority concept.

  7. gc
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    I’d like to hear some suggestions on how well being could be measured. What metrics would Harris and others suggest that we start with? Could we develop experiments to see if the metrics match a well being index both objectively and subjectively?

    • Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      First, the social, economic, and political sciences already have lots of means of measuring those sorts of things, at least on a societal scale. Look at the Gini coefficient, or GDP, or even the UK’s Office for National Statistics.

      But the problem with Sam’s approach, a problem that he acknowledges without suggesting a solution, is that top-down attempts at maximizing wellbeing run smack-dab into all the pitfalls of those bullshit trolley car thought experiments philosophers love to trot out.

      Dictatorships have the potential for unsurpassed peak wellbeing, for the ones at the top. But they suck for average wellbeing.

      You could easily maximize average wellbeing by killing all the people not well off.

      You could maximize total wellbeing by making the population as huge as possible.

      Every way you turn, you run into absurd consequences…which is almost universally a really, really good indication that there’s something seriously worng with your initial premise.

      In this case, the problem is with the top-down approach. Morality, as with everything else in the universe, most obviously Evolution, is a bottom-up phenomenon. Morality consists of a strategy (in the game theory sense of the term) that will maximize your own personal well-being. It just so happens that the best way to do that is to play nice with others — you can do a lot better if you don’t have to hunt and gather your own food all by yourself.

      Yes, as with everything, it’s not perfect. People will act in their short-term interests at the expense of their long-term interests, for example — and virtually all objections to a bottom-up view of morality amount to exactly that problem.

      Q. “But what if I want to rape and murder and pillage?”

      A. “Well, would you rather live to see another day, or would you rather rape and murder and pillage? Or did you think raping and murdering and pillaging wouldn’t have a very high priority of some very immediate and very nasty consequences for you?”

      Q. “But I don’t want to pay any taxes!”

      A. “What, you think those roads paved themselves? Do you think the police will come protect you from your neighbors when they decide they want to rape, murder, and pillage if you don’t pay police salaries? Do you really think you could afford to amass a book collection as big as the library?”

      Q. “But I think it’s icky when people drink beer / marry the worng person / have medical procedures I wouldn’t want to have!”

      A. “Tough shit. You like to do lots of things other people find icky. If everybody agrees to refrain from both preventing others from having their ickies and refrain from imposing their ickies on others, everybody can get to have their own ickies. That’s the price you pay for your own ickies, so learn to live with it.”

      And so on.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Alex SL
        Posted September 9, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        This is a very interesting take of the issue, but I fear that it will ultimately not do anything to solve it either. There may simply be several different stable strategies or optima, and how do you decide between them?

        And finally, if you think you can give your snappy answers to the questions you posed without the top-down implementation you criticize, you are sadly mistaken. While the negative consequences for raping and pillaging may occur either way (lynching), it will be hard to make people pay taxes or tolerate others without having a government enforce it.

        • Posted September 10, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink

          There may simply be several different stable strategies or optima, and how do you decide between them?

          That’s your problem.

          No, really — the greatest liberty and the greatest challenge is to make decisions, and choosing between equal options is the hardest choice to make.

          While the negative consequences for raping and pillaging may occur either way (lynching), it will be hard to make people pay taxes or tolerate others without having a government enforce it.

          In the current political environment, taxes are considered evil, but only because people have forgotten that, with taxes, they buy civilization. It used to be that people would drive on a road or go to the library or be rescued from a fire and feel pride and happiness that they helped build the road or stock the library or put out the fire by paying their taxes. Thanks to Grover Norquist, we live in a bizarro world where being a good citizen is equated with being a dupe.

          But, don’t worry. It might take the collapse of the American empire, but, at some point, a bunch of people will decide that they want to drive on a road to somewhere without potholes, and they’ll pool their money to build / repair the road, and the nobility of taxes will be reborn.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Alex SL
            Posted September 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

            No, really — the greatest liberty and the greatest challenge is to make decisions, and choosing between equal options is the hardest choice to make.

            I would be grateful if you could provide references to peer-reviewed scientific literature demonstrating the truth of this claim experimentally.

            As for the rest, you seem to be under the impression that I am in America; I am not. But no matter what country, people never pay taxes voluntarily, nor do most people voluntarily refrain from bullying minorities. If you think differently, you are, sorry to say, hopelessly naive.

            • Dan L.
              Posted September 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

              nor do most people voluntarily refrain from bullying minorities.

              I would be grateful if you could provide references to peer-reviewed scientific literature demonstrating the truth of this claim experimentally.

  8. Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    First, I found this snippet from Baggini particularly obnoxious:

    But science also has to accept there may be limits to its reach.

    No, science not only doesn’t need to accept that, it shouldn’t. Baggini is spewing the same paternalistic “Because I said, ‘Shut the fuck up,’ that’s why” bullshit that we get from religious authorities everywhere. Science “accepting its limits” can only mean scientists meekly shutting down their labs and humbly accepting the revelations of the philosopher-priest-kings.

    Has science ever hit any brick walls? None that I can think of, though there’ve certainly been lots of steep mountains that we’ve climbed. Suggesting that now, of all times, when we’re starting to explain everything there is, from the origins of the universe to the mechanics of human cognition, is when we should whine, “Poor us! We’re too stupid to figure any of this out!”…well, I’m hard pressed to think of anything more insulting somebody could say to a human, or a more transparent attempt at an unjustifiable power-grab.

    Back to Jerry:

    And for those of you who say that “is” doesn’t produce “ought,” I’d like to ask you this: “well, how do we determine ‘oughts’”?

    The “is / ought” distinction is a red herring and has no place in discussions of morality. It’s a leading question not unlike asking when you stopped beating your underaged prostitute.

    Morality has nothing at all to do with “is / ought” distinctions, unless you’re a priest picking up the robes of the invisible emperor you just invented, in which case “ought” is whatever your god says “is.”

    The question that we should be discussing is how to get from “want” to “should.”

    Pick any “want” you might have, even an anti-social one, and you’re going to have a much better chance of even getting into position to achieve your wants if you start from a position as a productive, helpful member of society. Even the evil villains of a Bond movie need to pay property taxes on their secret hideaways lest they get audited before they can press the Big Red Button. If you want to destroy the world, you should first become a hugely successful businessman so you can afford to hire all those mad scientists and pay for their expensive toys.

    And, the Republican party and the Koch Brothers not withstanding, if you want to become a hugely successful businessman, you should first ensure that your workers are happy and healthy, or else you’ll re-discover (as I strongly suspect we’re about to) why the Labor Movement began in the first place. Or, at an extreme, if it really gets too bad too quickly to do something about it, you’ll re-learn why it is that empires and authoritarian regimes crumble sooner rather than later.

    So, there you have it: from wanting to destroy the world to becoming a champion of liberal democracy, all by following the resulting chain of “should”s.

    The only instances where this breaks down is when somebody already in good graces with society suddenly develops a destructive goal more important than self-preservation. Such was the case most with the Colorado Shooter and spectacularly with the 9/11 Saudis…but a healthy society has mechanisms to discourage and prevent such aberrations in the first place. And, no, our society isn’t particularly healthy right now….

    Cheers,

    b&

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      You could always just say to Baggini, “Science may have its limits, but those allegedly imposed by religionists are not among them”.

      • Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        I wouldn’t even go that far. There aren’t even any hints of suggestions that science has limits. It’s like suggesting we should concern ourself that there might not be enough sunlight or something equally bizarre.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Alex SL
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

          Ah. Can you suggest a research program that can prove or disprove, for example, Carathéodory’s existence theorem?

          And no, mathematics is not science. If you define science that broadly – and I am saying this as somebody who has a very broad definition of science indeed – the term becomes meaningless.

          By the way, there might not be enough sunlight to drive all our desired industrial output with entirely sustainable energy if we are too many and too greedy.

          • Posted September 10, 2012 at 2:00 am | Permalink

            That’s not a lack of sunlight. It’s a lack of solar converters. The sun is incredibly shiny. We can’t handle that much shine yet. We don’t have the machinery.

          • Posted September 10, 2012 at 7:40 am | Permalink

            As Jerry and I define science — the logical pursuit of empirical knowledge — math qualifies. Math can get very abstract at times, and the connections with the empirical world can get tenuous, but they still show up with surprising frequency. Who’d’a thunk that imaginary numbers would show up in electricity?

            And, as for solar power…we wouldn’t even have to cover every rooftop with off-the-shelf solar panels to power everything we do today and then some. Indeed, it’d only take half of one year’s worth of GDP for the US to switch its electrical grid to solar. Do the job over 50 years, and we’d spend less than we do on Federal retirement benefits.

            Indeed, there is one and only one energy source that is even theoretically capable of powering civilization over the long term: the Sun. We’ve already used up half the planet’s petroleum reserves, and we’ve used up significant fractions of all other mineral-based energy sources. Wind and hydro are themselves solar-powered, and neither is anywhere near as concentrated as solar photovoltaic.

            But solar photovoltaic? As I wrote, we already have more than enough surface area on our rooftops alone to power us for…well, for the next few billion years, at least….

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted September 10, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

              there is one and only one energy source that is even theoretically capable of powering civilization over the long term:

              Well, there is nuclear fusion, which is the basis of solar power. But the sun has a greater supply of fusionable material.

              We’ve already used up half the planet’s petroleum reserves

              It might be helpful in advancing public energy policy if people realized that petroleum is just a kind of solar energy “battery” or storage device that charges very very very slowly, which won’t be practical to recharge once we drain it.

              Our society in general thinks in ways that are incredibly short sighted.

              • Posted September 10, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

                Well, there is nuclear fusion, which is the basis of solar power.

                It seems pretty clear that fusion will never be anywhere near as cheap as solar photovoltaics already are. Solar photovoltaics are just large-sise very-low-grade semiconductors, really. Fusion is the hardest technological thing our species has ever attempted, and we still can’t get more out of it than we put into it.

                It might be helpful in advancing public energy policy if people realized that petroleum is just a kind of solar energy “battery” or storage device that charges very very very slowly, which won’t be practical to recharge once we drain it.

                The first part of that is true, but the last isn’t necessarily.

                With sufficient energy input, we already know how to turn atmospheric carbon dioxide into hydrocarbon fuels. Indeed, there’s not much challenge to doing so…except for the cost.

                But, as expensive as it would be to generate syngas via the Fischer-Tropsch process powered by solar photovoltaics…it still wouldn’t be as expensive as refining tar sands.

                That’s why we’re never going to run out of oil, and why I’m not too worried about us dumping too much more CO2 into the atmosphere. The cheap stuff has already all been mined, and we won’t be able to afford to mine the rest. We’ve basically run out of cheap petroleum, we’ve only got a couple-few decades more of cheap coal, and about as much cheap methane.

                The real concern is the shock to our economic system. The past century of radical growth has been fueled entirely by cheap fossil fuels. Unless we can successfully transition over the next few decades to not-as-cheap-but-our-only-practical-long-term-aternative solar, and do so with gusto, we’re going to drive ourselves into a resource-exhaustion-driven global financial meltdown that’ll take longer any any of us will live to see to recover from.

                b&

            • Alex SL
              Posted September 10, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

              It is news to me that math is empirical; I think you will find a pronounced difference in the way a mathematician on the one side and a biologist like myself or a physicist, for example, on the other side, generate knowledge.

              But well, if you want to define science as “every activity that I accept as generating knowledge”, then of course you are right that there is no other activity that generates knowledge. In other news, if I define flying to mean “moving across the ground”, then my car can fly. Yay!

            • Posted September 10, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

              As Jerry and I define science — the logical pursuit of empirical knowledge — math qualifies. Math can get very abstract at times, and the connections with the empirical world can get tenuous, but they still show up with surprising frequency. Who’d’a thunk that imaginary numbers would show up in electricity?

              Put me down as another mathematician who does not believe that all mathematics comes from empirical knowledge. For instance, real numbers are not empirical objects. It is impossible to point to something and say that thing is a real number, the way you can point to a fossil or a mole of some element. Real numbers are an abstraction, an idea that can be useful in calculation but which do not exist in the physical world. And since they are uncountable, there is no way to even approach examining them empirically. It is a logical impossibility.

              Again, with imaginary numbers, you are confusing the ability of a mathematical model to predict what happens in the empirical world with an empirical object. The use of exp(it) simply encodes the periodic behavior of electromagnetic fields. The model is *not* the object it is modeling.

        • Tim R
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

          Well, research is expensive , so money or better said the lack of it can definitely limit the ” making” of science.

    • joe piecuch
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      ““Because I said, ‘Shut the fuck up,’ that’s why” bullshit…”

      “…no place in discussions of morality. It’s a leading question not unlike asking when you stopped beating your underaged prostitute.”

      i love it when you denounce the same tactics you employ. i suspect that explanations for that sort of thing will at some point be based solely in science, but explanations informed by philosophy are more amusing.

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted September 9, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        The challenge I have with this is one I experience frequently: characterization of terms.

        Dr. Coyne states, “science (which I define broadly as empirical study resulting in verifiable information about the universe).”
        which seems a reasonable characterization for this discussion, then…

        Krauss says, “I cannot imagine that I could computationally determine the motion of all the particles in the room… But, one day, who knows?”

        Followed by Bagini saying, “science also has to accept there may be limits to its reach.”

        and Goren writes, “No, science not only doesn’t need to accept that, it shouldn’t.”

        …leading me to wonder… how does a human mind with it’s neuronal limitations possibly develop to a point where all limits exist have been eliminated? Are there no intractable problems? And… if we achieved unlimited knowledge, how would we know? ;-)

        • Posted September 10, 2012 at 5:14 am | Permalink

          Bunge writes somewhere (vol. 5 or 6 of the _Treatise on Basic Philosophy_, I think) something like: “Are there perennial unsolved problems which may never be answered? *This* is one.”

          • Gordon Hill
            Posted September 10, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

            As a science neophyte–read engineer–I have no doubts as to the existence of what Karl Jaspers called ‘reality as such.’ Still, I doubt our magnificent brain with its one hundred trillion neurons, as capable as it seems, is capable of comprehending what is… completely.

            This view has been further reinforced by two works, Who’s in Charge by Michael Gazzaniga and Mind and Brain by William Uttal.

            There is an interesting interview of Gazzaniga by Charlie Rose hwere Rose asks, “How much do we know about the mind? 5%, 10% 20%…” to which Gazzaniga, being kind it sees, replied, “We’ve just begun.”

            It’s at http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/12301

            • joe piecuch
              Posted September 10, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

              i was just looking at amazon’s listing for the uttal book you reference, and saw your review; it sounds as though it is a worthwhile read.

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

                I recommend it as a thought stimulator. He is an engineer and psychologist, Ph. D.s in both. A thoughtful researcher and writer in my estimation.

                I got the book through Inter Library Loan… too pricy for me… His approach to analyzing the current state of neuroscience research was just right for me.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

                thank you, sir. was there any evidence of his engineering background in the text, and, if so, did that make it a more congenial read for you?

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

                The combination of engineering and psychology hooked me. I worked my way through engineering school as a computer maintenance tech (when computers were maintained at the component level) and as an equipment designer/builder for the experimental psychologists, then spent my first few years working with hybrid (digital/analog computers); therefore, Dr. Uttal’s book resonated in every technical cranial cavity… ;-)

              • joe piecuch
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

                thanks much; it sounds great, and i’ll be picking it up. the first computer i ever worked with was a mohawk; the software was encoded on a roll of punched paper tape.

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

                My first computer was a Datatron 205… vacuum tubes… 44 bit word in BCD… floating point hardware… card reader/punch… line printer… two tape drives… a Friden Flexowriter console… high speed paper tape reader and punch… with 4,000 words of main memory on a Bryant drum and 80 words of high speed memory (on the drum as well)… a 100K bps master clock… machine language programmed…

                Thanks for prompting the memory… I do hope you enjoy the book…

              • joe piecuch
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

                well, now my computer is a mac, but the stereo is still tubes; tubes are the only way to go for audio. thanks, i’m sure i’ll enjoy the book a great deal.

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

                You mean listening to Mozart music-on-hold over a cell phone isn’t stereo quality? (Please don’t kill me. I’m kidding, although it may not be something to kid about.) ;-)

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted September 10, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

          Science may not have limits just because the human brain does.

          So, human science will have limits that science itself (in the hands of, say, hyper-intelligent aliens) may not have.

          I suppose to have no limits in describing nature, science would have to be identical to nature. The only purely true model of nature is nature itself. The very nature of representation, modeling, and mapping has inherent limits because it reduces the information complexity of its referent.

          Nevertheless, what I think should be clear, and it seems to be downplayed in the Baggini line you quoted, is that religion and philosophy are far more constrained than science in answering questions. They have their hands tied behind their backs, so to speak, or their butts chained to armchairs and alters, perhaps.

          Where religion and philosophy have an advantage is that they are expressed in language that is closer to human experience and emotion, so they ‘feel’ more compelling perhaps, but this shouldn’t be confused with efficacy in answering questions and discovering truth.

          Making open ended statements about the limits of science seems to be a favorite strategy used by religionists and philosophers to grasp at formerly safe territory that is inexorably slipping beyond their reach as science advances.

          If our knowledge of the brain advances far enough, we will be able to understand what most humans, or at least philosophers, might agree are valid ‘ought’ statements in terms of what the state of the philosopher’s brain ‘is’, which would be premised at least partially on what ‘is’ in the inputs from environmental context, creating some kind of chain of inference from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ that is beyond philosophy’s reach.

          The power of extremely complex a posteriori judgments will (or already does?) far exceed the reach of relatively simple a priori judgments in ethics and epistemology.

          Someday science may be modeling and predicting the entire scope and content of possible a priori judgments for the human brain. Perhaps the complete space of logical truth for the human brain, while not finite, can at least be described well enough to characterize its structure, compare the features of various trajectories, and even to predict a distribution of probable paths of human thought given a knowledge base and a specific question.

          • Gordon Hill
            Posted September 10, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

            Thanks for the thorough response. For me, science is the investigation of natural phenomena leading to scientific knowledge which meshes with Coyne’s stated definition at the beginning of this posting, “science (which I define broadly as empirical study resulting in verifiable information about the universe).”

            The phrase ‘verifiable information’ prompts me to consider science as limited to what we can know. The view of whether science extends beyond human knowledge opens a new dimension which I feel neither capable nor interested in pursuing, but one I suspect many would find engaging.

            As for you point, “Someday science may be modeling and predicting the entire scope and content of possible a priori judgments for the human brain.”

            You have moved beyond my realm of confidence. My current interest is in reading current works on the “mind/brain” problem and, at present, consider it intractable for several reasons:
            1. We don’t have the foggiest idea how the brain is organized and operational. (Although some think we do).
            2. We don’t have the foggiest idea how neuronal activity creates a thought or what a thought is.
            3. The unique biological essential in every human is DNA which creates what may be the first intractable of neuroscience.
            4. Top that with experience (attention and perception) plus language and culture and we seem to be in a field where psychology becomes applied philosophy with general tendencies, not verifiable information.”

            But I am not a scientist and offer no view as universal, only personal. Thanks for your time… more to consider… ;-)

    • Posted September 10, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      This.

  9. Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    The phrase “reducible to” is often a pejorative prelude meant to incredulously minimize the role of biology in such experiences as love. However, it should be dismantled with the realization that all such emotional states are “inducible only because of biology.”

    • Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      It also implies that scientists think that cognition is “only” a result of a chemical reaction, as if you could make a thinking, feeling, intelligent mind just by pouring the contents of some test tubes into a flask and stirring it.

      If we’re going to say that cognition is reducible to biochemistry, then we also need to say that computation, including everything from climate modeling to online cat videos, is reducible to semiconductor physics. Such a claim, though true in a very limited sense, misses the point in a spectacularly misleading way. Never mind that you’re not going to get any sort of computation by dumping beach sand on a sheet of paper, it’s missing the main attraction: the information science, the software that’s where all the action is (nearly invisibly from most casual forms of analysis) going on.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

        The Department of Molecular Services should immediately report any suspected neglect and/or abuse of such fundamental processes.

  10. Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Interesting post. I want to focus on three passages, all of which seem to me to go astray in very similar ways. Pardon the long reply, but I think any further replies can be shorter.

    [1.] People’s view of what is “moral” ultimately must rest on one or more of three things …. In the end, then, it is possible, though not yet feasible, for science to determine what is moral, simply by investigating the neurological and evolutionary bases of our value judgments.

    It looks as if you are equating what people think is morally permissible with what actually is morally permissible. If you’re not, could you clarify? Science can certainly investigate the former, but at best it can only (distantly, in my mind) inform the latter.

    [2.] But on what grounds, then, do we determine whether homosexuality is right or wrong? It must rest on … scientific questions.

    Again, isn’t there a clear difference between figuring out why people think and judge the way they do, and whether those judgments are correct?

    [3.] “well, how do we determine ‘oughts’”? They don’t come from thin air, and they don’t come from free will. They come from human judgment, which is a result of our genes and our environments.

    Again, even if you know everything about where a judgment came from, that doesn’t seem to settle fully or directly the question of whether the judgment is true.

    If you’re asking how it is we figure out whether some value judgment is correct, I could give you hundreds of pages of recent metaethics. It’s a very difficult question, but it usually comes down to something like self-evidence, intuition, epistemological problems with the contrary position, or indispensibility. I really can elaborate if you want, and there’s a bit here about it too. But it’s probably far too deep a question to address sufficiently in a few comments on this blog.

    • Jamie
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      You may posit an objective morality that exists independently of what people think, but such an abstract entity is just like god in that an argument for it’s existence requires evidence, and the burden of providing the evidence falls to the one making the claim–that would be you. In other words, assuming that morality is, in fact, just what people think it is, is only a mistake if it has been conclusively demonstrated that an objective morality exists, which you have not done.

      Jerry may simply assume that no such entity exists. He is under no obligation to prove that morality is what people think it is, and cannot be criticized for not discussing or addressing your personal belief in an objective morality. That is, he is not “wrong” simply because you assume something exists for which there is no evidence.

      • Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        Jamie,

        Thanks for your reply. Two replies:

        (1) As I mentioned in my original reply to Jerry, the arguments for objective ethical truths are sometimes fairly involved. But I’m certainly not merely assuming it; I think there’s lots of evidence for objective ethical truths, but I haven’t gotten into details here.

        (I think it would be great if Jerry actually made a full post about the arguments philosophers offer for such truths, so readers here could get a clear idea. But until and unless he does that, we have to be somewhat oblique.)

        Here’s a quick stab, though: In order to decide whether some belief is justified, we need to use our intuitions, since epistemic justification is not directly empirically detectable. This implies that to detect epistemic justification in general, we must at least prima facie trust our intuitions. In turn, if we at least prima facie trust our intuitions (as nearly everyone does), many of us will be at least prima facie justified in believing in those objective ethical truths.

        (2) If Jerry may assume that no such entity exists, are you saying he may assume some proposition without evidence for that proposition? Doesn’t that violate your principle, “the burden of providing the evidence falls to the one making the claim”?

        • Jamie
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

          Tom,

          Thanks for the interesting comments. I have looked at the item you linked and re-read your post. Perhaps a better response to your original post would have been simply to say, “yes, I do equate what people think is morally permissible with what actually is morally permissible—though I can’t speak for Jerry—and is there something wrong with that? Since I equate the things you distinguish, for me, there is no “science can investigate the former but not the later” since there are not actually two things under discussion on my view, and so, no error on Jerry’s part.

          On the matter of intuition and justified belief… it makes a difference where one’s intuition comes from… a list of possible sources (with no attempt to be exhaustive) would include, traditions passed down from parents or other forms of cultural indoctrination, introspection, experience interacting with the material world… not all intuitions have (or *should* have, lol) the same standing in justifying one’s beliefs, so there is, at least in principle, a means to distinguish inferior and superior justifications based on intuition. There is also the track record of one’s justified beliefs in experience. If I claim to know, not just believe, that if I drop my coffee cup it will fall and the contents will spill out, my belief that I have knowledge is certainly *more justified* than someone who claims with equal vigor to know that god did, or is, X or whatever other abstract, untestable belief they may hold based on their intuition. There is not, in fact, epistemic equivalence of all ‘justified’ belief merely because all knowledge is, at root, justified belief.

          On your second point, I did not make myself clear, I guess. The answer to your question is, no, I am not saying he may assume some proposition without evidence for that proposition. My principle is not, “the burden of providing the evidence falls to the one making the claim” but rather a burden of evidence falls on anyone making an existence claim for an invisible entity. Jerry is merely accepting the null hypothesis. That’s how it’s done in the sciences… one doesn’t have to justify disbelief in the same way that one must justify belief.

          • Posted September 10, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

            Jamie,

            (1) Certainly we can critique intuitions, and part of that critique will be about their sources. Intuitionists argue that some intuitions toward ethical realism survive that critique.

            (2) The position that anyone claiming that some entity does exist bears a burden of proof, but that someone claiming that an entity doesn’t exist doesn’t bear a burden of proof, is a substantive philosophical claim. What evidence is there for that philosophical position? (What evidence is there that nonexistence claims enjoy “default” justification, but existence claims don’t?)

            • Jamie
              Posted September 10, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

              Your 2 is a fair question. In science, the evidence for the null hypothesis is the accumulated experience of multitudes of scientists over the history of the endeavor. The whole project is an attempt to wrestle positive results away from the null hypothesis, and it is not easy to do. The rare occasions where it is accomplished get published with some fanfare. But most working scientists know that usually, the null hypothesis wins out. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of hypotheses are rejected for every one that is found to show interesting results and therefore eventually published.

              That may not meet the exacting standards of philosophy, but it is not either a completely un-evidenced proposition. Oh, and it works, if not perfectly, at least better than any other system we know…

              Of course reason and logic alone won’t get you there. Experience is required. Which, I think, is precisely why science trumps philosophy. Yes, one can think of a nice, symmetrically equivalent logic indicating that disbelief *should* not be privileged. But that only applies in the hermetically sealed mind, not in the wider reality of the material world. Understand, it is not privileged a priori. Experience hath shown… etc.

  11. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Science and morality can shape each other, while being separate entities, rather like the Escher drawing of two hands drawing each other.

  12. Yon Fishman
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that this is a false dilemma, as neither science nor philosophy can tell us what we should value or what our goals should be.

    “If you want your car to last, then you should change the oil”. Empirical science can tell us that most us do in fact want our cars to last, the possible origins of that desire, and how best to achieve that goal (e.g., change the oil). But it can’t tell us that we ought to want our cars to last.

    As there are no objective moral truths (only personal preferences), neither science nor philosophy has a role to play here.

    • Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      So close, and yet….

      Yes, if you want your car to last, then you should change the oil.

      You get to pick your own “wants.” The “should”s logically follow. And, surprise surprise, the “should”s are what constitutes morality.

      You probably want to live a long, healthy, fulfilling life. It’s a very common goal, and a goal that one would expect Evolution to instill — after all, those with no ambition to live aren’t likely to live long enough to pass on their lack of ambition.

      And your chances of living a long, healthy, fulfilling life are much enhanced when you have the support of a healthy and productive society surrounding you.

      And the only way to be surrounded by a healthy and productive society is to be a supportive member of that healthy and productive society.

      Which means you shouldn’t harm others, you should help scratch their backs, and you should do your part to make the world a nicer place to live in.

      If you do all that, you’ll in turn gain the support of society, and the full force of the society can then be applied to accomplishing whatever other wants you happen to have. Just try to be a photographer without the help of somebody on an assembly line on the other side of the planet.

      And, if you don’t do all that, society will remove you from its presence (put you in prison) or otherwise withhold from you the full benefit of its cooperative power (not pay you because you’re not helping / working for anybody else).

      Really, it’s not rocket science….

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        But what we want is determined by the way we are, and we can’t be ultimately responsible for the way we are. Strawson has a wonderful quote from Nietzsche on this point in Luck Swallows Everything.

        “in order to be ultimately responsible, one would have to be causa sui – the ultimate cause or origin of oneself, or at least of some crucial part of one’s mental nature. But nothing can be ultimately causa sui in any respect at all. Even if the property of being causa sui is allowed to belong unintelligibly to God, it cannot plausibly be supposed to be possessed by ordinary finite human beings. ‘The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far’, as Nietzsche remarked in 1886:

        it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the halfeducated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness “

        • Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

          But what we want is determined by the way we are, and we can’t be ultimately responsible for the way we are.

          Whatever the ultimate nature of reality, we at the very least have an inescapable illusion that we are in control of our own thoughts and actions.

          You can either adopt the fatalistic approach you describe, in which case why get out of bed? or you can go with the illusion and seize control of your own destiny.

          You’re much likelier to prosper and be happier with the second approach, even if you were merely destined to come to that choice by the happenstances of the universe.

          Or, again, you could just never get out of bed.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

            You must have the world’s best bed. Where did you buy it?

            • Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

              Erm…I’m confused.

              What gave you the impression that I never get out of bed, or that I thin that’s a wise or desirable option?

              b&

              • Posted September 9, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

                Just teasing Ben. Even a fatalist would want to get out of bed unless that was one hell of a bed.

        • Vaal
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          “But what we want is determined by the way we are, and we can’t be ultimately responsible for the way we are. “

          That’s pretty vague, but depending on what you mean by that, I’d mention a couple of things.

          1. “We” collectively, do indeed play a role in what we want. A great portion of our desires are malleable and subject to influence by society. I have no desire to enslave a black person, but I would had I lived in many southern societies in the past, because it was one of the desires promulgated in that society. I have no desire to cover my wife with a veil, because I do not live in a society that promotes such desires in it’s people. So we can play a role in encouraging or discouraging one another’s desires using the tools like praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

          2. If you want to go beyond that and talk of some “ultimate” responsibility, that is getting into theistic territory and makes little sense for the same reason. Like theists saying there is no “ultimate” value if God doesn’t exist – it’s not a value that matters and it’s a mistake to think it does.
          Same with this “ultimate responsibility” thingy. Once I am responsible, or my decisions are a cause, then that’s all that is needed to get morality rolling.

          (The only way “ultimate responsibility” could come in is if my desire/choices were actually acting out the desires/choices of some other agent. If that happened to be a God then he would be “ultimately responsible” in that regard, but it is no more important or robust a sense of responsibility than if there is no God and I’m the one behind my desires/choices. Because the logic of agent responsibility is precisely the same in either my case or God’s case, making God gratuitous).

          Vaal

      • abrotherhoodofman
        Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        You make it sound so easy, Ben! Have you thought about starting your own church?
        ;)

  13. Alex T
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    The homosexuality-as-natural and therefore is not immoral is problematic for me when we look at other things which are also natural like psychopathy.

    I think we’d agree that homosexuality and psychopathy as orientations or mental states are not, by themselves, immoral. When people are saying that homosexuality is immoral they’re talking about the actions and consequences – homosexual relationships, gay sex, etc. Now we’re talking about consequences and actions which we do to ourselves and others, not something that we’re born with. I agree that being gay isn’t something we can change, but we can change our actions. Saying it’s “natural” seems like a very weak excuse. I have as much sympathy for that argument as I would if a psychopath tried to justify all of his actions by saying they arose because of the way he was born.

    So just because people may be born a certain way, doesn’t mean that the actions they’re predisposed to do must be moral.

    And one other thing really stood out, JAC’s line: “And for those of you who say that “is” doesn’t produce “ought,” I’d like to ask you this: “well, how do we determine ‘oughts’”?”

    Well said, I definitely agree.

    • Jamie
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      I agree that the “natural” defense is a weak one. But I don’t agree that people who go on about the immorality of homosexuality are talking about or concerned with actions and consequences. In my experience, most of those people have no regard to any actions or consequences other than their personal feelings of discomfort when considering the idea of same sex coupling. Most have no experience with same sex love and are simply acculturated to fear and revile it. (But then, many heterosexual people also fear and revile heterosexual sex, and consider it to be immoral as well outside of narrowly defined limits.) But should we take as immoral whatever our father’s father’s father’s say it to be, without regard to actual actions and consequences? How could an act which harms no one ever be construed to be immoral if not for ancient religious proclamations and outmoded traditions?

  14. Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Doesn’t morality always refer to social punishment and therefore local power relationships?

    What seems to be happening are expanded definitions of “local” to bigger and bigger groups.

    For example, in an environment of acute resources shortages and hyper-competition, like the Mid East, violence and hyper=restrictive behaviors obviously made sense when they were selected — for like dress and food preferences — For those local ecosystems.

    But now that local ecosystems, are in some ways, going global,

    My contention is that ideologies and talk about morality are no more significant to behaviors than local dress and food preferences.

    We would probably get farther in discussions of scientific vs ideological talking (which is all it is) if we moved away from the “threatening” topic of morality to food preferences. Bet the mechanisms are the same.

  15. Phil Brown
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    The rejection of free will does indeed seem to entail the rejection of moral obligation. Ought implies can, so if you tell me that I morally ought to do X, but I am determined by forces outside of my control not to do X, then what you say is false. (Some philosophers, it should be noted, reject the claim that ought implies can.)

    This, of course, is pure philosophy. What puzzles me about this post is why Jerry seems to accept that morality is an illusion, but at the same time agrees with Harris that scientists are better placed than philosophers to answer questions about how we ought to live. Surely the conclusion he should reach is that such questions are just pseudo-questions.

    Jerry writes:

    “But on what grounds, then, do we determine whether homosexuality is right or wrong? It must rest on an appeal to the consequences (which is an empirical and scientific question), on the way most people feel about homosexuality (something that is a combination of our genes and our environment, and coded in our neurons), on sacred books and dogma, or on a combination of these.”

    These don’t exhaust the possible ways of determining right and wrong actions. Two important moral theories that you miss out are rationalist and contractarian view of ethics. Rationalists hold that we can discover at least the most basic moral principles by a priori reasoning, just as we discover the axioms of mathematics. Contractarians hold that moral rules depend on tacit agreements we (the moral community) have made about how to live.

    Do either of these theories fare better than consequentialism or divine command theory? We will need to do some philosophy to find out.

    • Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Hear, hear.

      You could also make an appeal to function, the way Aristotle did. And that also seems to me to be a normative concept.

      I’d really like to see scientismists who think ethics can be derived from science to fill in the following argument-schema:

      (1) Science states that D, where D is some descriptive proposition.
      (2) ???
      (3) Therefore, N, where N is some normative proposition.

      Presumably, the content of (2) must be something like that if D then N. But of course ‘if D then N’ is normative. So then I want to know what scientific observation was the observation that if D then N.

    • couchloc
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      Phil and Tom are both right on their points. There are more theories of morality than are being described in Coyne’s post, and it’s entirely unclear that the views he describes can scientifically address the fundamental feature of moral claims–their normativity–whatever other relevance they have. So I’m afraid I haven’t heard anything on this subject yet that makes me think science can “determine” moral values in any interesting sense.

      Secondly, Coyne reads into Baggini’s statements (much) more than he says:

      “Where does this leave philosophy? As Baggini admits, many philosophical questions will ultimately yield to science:

      [LK] . . . What isn’t ruled out by the laws of physics is, in some sense, inevitable……

      [JB]: Who knows? Indeed. Which is why philosophy needs to accept it may one day be made redundant. But science also has to accept there may be limits to its reach.”

      Baggini nowhere says here that “many philosophical questions will yield to science.” His point is the modest one that we have no basis from which to make forecasts about how the future will go, and this fact is true for philosophers AND scientists. His point is that it could just as well turn out that genuine philosophical problems will have no scientific answer and will remain in the future, despite Kruass’s claims. This is very different from the way Coyne describes his view.

      • Jamie
        Posted September 9, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        Are you happy with the argument that science can never tell us what our moral code should be? We’ve heard that argument before from religion and Jerry never seems to tire of pointing out that religion (in this case philosophy) cannot either. You have just emphasized the many philosophical theories of morality that Jerry fails to consider… and how does philosophy purport to decide between those theories? And once decided, what is the moral code that will result? Philosophy is in no better position to answer these questions than science is. One begins to wonder if the questions are well formed in the first place, or if the whole matter is akin to the question of how many angles can dance on the head of a pin.

        • couchloc
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

          “One cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’.”

          This statement seems quite well formed to me, and, indeed, true. The fact that its truth is not dependent on science or justified by empirical investigation in any way has no tendency in my view to erode its truth. Philosophy attempts to evaluate such statements in various ways—through rational thought, appeals to intuition, reflection on our moral concepts, and other approaches. The fact that there is disagreement among philosophers about which moral theory is correct does not itself show that none of them is (that’s a nonsequitur), any more than the fact that there’s disagreement among scientists about the existence of multiverses shows they don’t exist. What it shows rather is that the relevant phenomena are complex and it is difficult to make out the correct theory. Moral philosophy deals with some of the most complex aspects of human behavior and it’s no wonder it’s a difficult subject. This difficulty should not be mistaken for an argument that there is no subject matter there.

          • Jamie
            Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

            That’s very well put, thank you. However, in regards to: “The fact that there is disagreement among philosophers about which moral theory is correct does not itself show that none of them is…”

            Yes one of them may well be correct, just as one of the many contradictory religions may be correct. But if you don’t have a reliable method for discerning which one, if any, is the correct one, then the bare fact that one may be correct is fairly useless.

            I thought it amusing that in one metaphorical breath the philosophers are holding that science will never tell us what’s right while simultaneously extolling the virtues of a multitude of (different) philosophical theories on the matter. Now if only there were some decision function to eliminate the “bad” theories!

            I admit the is/ought distinction seems impregnable at the moment. I think it may prove irrelevant in the long run, but I have no convincing argument to make (just my “intuition”—which must be prima facie correct, lol). On the other hand, I was wrong to say the questions are ill-formed. I know that has a technical meaning in philosophy and none of the questions are actually ill-formed in any technical sense—they are certainly not meaningless. They just seem wrong-headed to me. I agree with Tim who posted below:

            “So, as far as I can see, one either takes the (in principle) scientific approach to morality or one turns towards dualism or platonism (whether one acknowledges this or not).”

            Need I add, I reject both dualism and platonism? So I see no viable alternative to “scientism.” The metaphysics of Phil and Tom merely encourage me in my “scientism”. They are very articulate and very knowledgable about philosophy, but seem unable to grasp the material point of view (rather than showing they understand it, but reject it for good reasons). They keep making arguments that presume metaphysical entities (“oughts”, free-will choices and the like) and then complain that materialists don’t take those entities seriously… well, duh.

            • Posted September 10, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

              Jamie,

              Again, I don’t think we are merely presuming anything. I’ve looked at the arguments for and against materialism and metaphysical naturalism, and in another forum, I’d be happy to explain why the most common versions of those positions are probably false. In the present debate, I thought, we were assuming that there was such a thing as knowledge in ethics, and asking where that knowledge comes from. (From science alone? Philosophy alone? Some combination?) Thus it’s not illegitimate to presume that this knowledge exists.

              In contrast, if we were arguing about whether metaethical realism, platonism, or libertarianism about free will were true, I certainly wouldn’t merely asssume those positions or anything that entailed them. I would hope, of course, that the materialists and hard determinists would also not assume that their positions are true, but instead consider the arguments for and against those positions carefully.

              • Jamie
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

                Well, I try very earnestly not to make unexamined assumptions, but I’m sure my thought is riddled with them in spite of my best efforts. And of course I would do you the courtesy to assume you make at least equal efforts.

                You are tempting me into deep philosophical waters where I am out of my depth and likely to drown. I must admit I have not studied materialism (or any other system of philosophy) in any systematic way. It’s more like, “That makes sense to me… oh, that’s materialism? I guess I’m a materialist, then…”

                I think if you look again at your first Jerry quote back in post #10, that Jerry is not so much assuming ethical knowledge exists, but is holding out the possibility that such knowledge may exist at some future time. If I read him correctly, then this does have implications for what ethical knowledge could be (and what it cannot be). He is rather defining it, it seems to me, such that whatever we can learn about morals through science would constitute ethical knowledge, and anything else is just speculation. So we have a problem of epistemology.

                This brings us back to your initial point about the distinction between what people think morality is versus what it actually is. The materialist in me sees no distinction. I am willing to entertain how such a distinction could be made, but I won’t easily accept a distinction that requires giving up the materialist stance.

                Ethical knowledge, existing either in fact or only in principle, might be many different things. If one takes morality to be a prescriptive code of behavior, than ethical knowledge can only be facts about that code (what are the particular prescriptions, where do they come from, what is their purpose, are they generally followed, do they produce the expected results when they are followed, etc.) These are anthropological questions more than philosophical ones, but philosophy can ask are they internally consistent and doubtless other interesting things about such a code. But none of this has very much to do with neurology.

                On the other hand, suppose morality *is* the human capacity to feel revulsion at a certain (somewhat fuzzy) set of possible actions, the experience of “having a conscience” and the inclination to seek a state of affairs that is in some sense ‘better’ than the existing state of affairs. If that were the case, then ethical knowledge is not knowledge about a prescriptive code of behavior, but is knowledge about brain states, how they arise and how they determine thought and action. This is almost entirely the provenance of neurobiology. To know what *is* ethical is to know where particular ethical sentiments come from (biologically—not anthropologically).

            • couchloc
              Posted September 10, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

              Jamie, your comments are more reasonable than many people around here. Thank you. I’ll make two points. You write:

              “I thought it amusing that in one metaphorical breath the philosophers are holding that science will never tell us what’s right while simultaneously extolling the virtues of a multitude of (different) philosophical theories on the matter. Now if only there were some decision function to eliminate the “bad” theories!”

              I see your point, but I think you’re overestimating the divergences here. There is in fact a very large amount of agreement about basic moral matters throughout the world (“killing people for pleasure is wrong,” “babies shouldn’t be set on fire for fun,” “helping people in need is morally praiseworthy,” etc.). While it is true that in certain cases there are differences among the theories, we shouldn’t focus on these differences only in trying to develop our moral theories. So I think that there is more agreement in certain ways among the theories than you are describing and this matters in this context (after all, it can’t be an argument against moral philosophy that it hasn’t resolved all its difficulties; that’s true of physics as well).

              Second, on your worry about platonism and dualism I’m sympathetic. But we shouldn’t infer from this that the materialist answer must therefore be correct. This overlooks the fact that there may be other alternatives that have yet to be developed that will resolve the difficulties we’re discussing. It’s pretty clear at this point (as Phil and Tom note) that the materialist explanations of morality are deficient and won’t work. I would hold out for some broader view of moral philosophy that’s not materialist or dualist but somewhere in between.

              • Jamie
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

                I can certainly grant that there may be a lot of agreement between the different moral theories. I don’t pretend to any familiarity with them. Your examples seem to indicate that you take morality to be a prescriptive code of behavior (please see my comment above about that).

                You are right that, “it can’t be an argument against moral philosophy that it hasn’t resolved all its difficulties.” But it is not the unresolvedness per se that I object to. It’s the apparent lack of a method for eventual resolution that is troubling. But I am not a philosopher, so perhaps methods exist that I am simply unaware of. In fact the problems of physics just now are also largely methodological. It’s not, “is string theory plausible” but, “is string theory testable.”

                And you’re quite right that I can’t infer that materialism is correct simply because I don’t like dualism and platonism. But I’m an old man with my seeking youth far behind me. I have settled into a comfortable materialism that makes sense of the world for me in ways that the idealist philosophies never could. I’m sorry, but I don’t see how Tom and Phil have shown the deficiencies of a materialist philosophy of morals. All I see is that a materialist philosophy can’t easily incorporate certain types of metaphysical entities. But we materialists don’t see that as a deficiency—it’s a feature! ;).

    • Vaal
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Another +1.

      Well expressed, Phil!

      Vaal.

  16. Roo
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I am a bit of a mixed bag on this topic. Essentially, I think that the role religion has served up to this point does leave some holes that may need to be filled in by something else, and science alone may not be enough right now. Religion may have served some sort of purpose as a moral compass / philosophical tool waaaay back in the day, but obviously we’re waking up to the fact that this time is long gone. Science does seem to be our best bet at the moment, but it doesn’t fully cover questions of how to address our moral intuitions, subjective interpretations of findings, and intuition, which tend to drive a great deal of life. Religion, I think, tends to deal with these issues by slapping “God said it” over whatever intuitions a society currently holds. Obviously there must be a more constructive way. I’ve said before, I hope philosophy, psychology, and to some degree the arts will merge to handle those sorts of issues.

    As an example, these are the kinds of situations in my life where I raise an eyebrow about science giving us the answers over intuition:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/05/books/visions-and-revisions-of-child-raising-experts.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

    http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~jar/Reading_Wars.html

    Working with kids, I’ve noticed that often the best results seem to occur when therapists and educators, to some degree, ignore whatever Hot New Thing ‘science’ (quotes to indicate this may in fact be bad science, not to be disparaging) is insisting upon at the moment and rely somewhat on intuitions. I don’t think this comes from the science being wrong, rather, there are so many pieces that interact in so many ways under so many circumstances (and are open to so many interpretations,) and yet there’s a tendency to jump on a few results as having ‘figured out’ the big questions. Again, in my experience, this can result in bizarre advice such as Skinner boxes, and it’s human intuition that is typically the corrective for such thinking. We ‘just know’ that isn’t right, although we can’t yet say how we know or why.

    Or, let me attempt to illustrate my skepticism another way. There’s the well known utilitarian puzzle about a hitchhiker coming in for a routine checkup in a hospital where five patients need organ transplants. Is it ethical to kill the hitchhiker to save the other patients, as this would in fact increase the overall well being for this group of six people? (And say she could do this in secret, so the idea of people avoiding going to the hospital after this isn’t at play.) Most of us would say that this is wrong, I think, but why? Personally, I think it comes back to establishing trust as a society – we can’t live in a world where our doctor or anyone just might kill us even if it served the greater good, because in order to form a cooperative society we need a baseline level of trust in one another. To establish that kind of trust, some things, such as killing a person in secret, have to be Just Wrong, not up for grabs at all. I think there’s a gradation there, though: Can you steal the wallet of a billionaire that you know is stuffed with hundreds and give it to a starving family? Tell your friend a lie to spare their feelings? Shoot a man who’s about to kill a child intentionally? What if he’s about to kill a child but unintentionally, if he has his foot on the gas and by shooting him you could slow down the car? What if he’s about to rape someone, is it ok then? What if he’s about to break someone’s leg? And of course we make all sorts of exceptions for times of war, when both sides assume they are protecting the morally superior side and way of life.

    My intuitions lead me to believe that what we consider morality is an extraordinarily tangled web of gradations, primarily involving the things that allow us to function as a group while surviving ourselves. Trust vs. suspicion; self-interest vs. contributing to the group; protecting ‘our group’ vs. expanding our group to include more diverse (geographically and culturally) groups. There are probably few, if any hard and fast rules, and the ways in which these things interact may be very difficult to quantify. How much trust can you sacrifice for this level of group contribution, and so on? Where would a breakdown occur? We’re learning more all the time and perhaps one day we will figure it all out, but in the meantime I think we’re born with intuitions that addressed just those questions as we evolved as a society.

    Again, I’m not cheerleading for religion here, only saying that I think religious leaders do occasionally raise valid questions about the limits of current science and the need for something additional to curb/manage/constructively use things such as intuitions and subjective interpretations.

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      I think you’ve raised a good point here, and I would argue that philosophy and the arts *must* deal with these “intuitive” matters, because religion is not a valid way to fill in the gaps between what we don’t yet know and the ethical / social issues that demand our full attention right now.

      In that sense, religion and the arts are not ways of knowing, but they can certainly be ways of thinking, feeling and reflecting upon the issues that we don’t yet fully understand.

      • Mark Fuller Dillon
        Posted September 9, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        Forgive me, I meant to say, “Philosophy and the arts are not ways of knowing.”

        Religion, instead, is an extremely effective way of NOT knowing… without knowing it. :)

  17. JT
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    I think Sam Harris does well to compare the science of morality with the science of health. Health is also notoriously difficult to define but we still know what it is and isn’t. If we define morality as well-being then we can, in theory if not yet in practice, measure this in individuals and societies. There are people on here getting all hung up on the impossibility of science being able to tell us why we ought to value a certain moral prescription. But who cares about why we ought to value well-being. The medical sciences don’t seem to get all hung up on the question of why we ought to value health. Certainly there are people who will continue to smoke cigarettes and do other things that are unhealthy, but this does not seem to bother or hinder the progress of the medical sciences.
    Just as there are many different ways to achieve health, there are many different ways to achieve well-being. Right now, the major difference between, say, a science of health, and a science of well-being(morality) is that we don’t have a well-developed metric and our tools are, as yet, pretty clumsy and dull. That will change with time. Science has done miraculous things and it will find a way.

  18. Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    People’s view of what is “moral” ultimately must rest on one or more of three things: an appeal to the consequences, an appeal to some authority (like Scripture), or some innate feeling instilled by our genes in combination with our environment (in other words, morality lies in our neurons). Sam’s answer is a combination of the first and third, but regardless, both the first and third are susceptible to empirical investigation.

    And what scientific investigation will tell us which consequences we should be maximizing and which innate feelings we should be cultivating?

    (Semantic quibble: if it’s to some extent environmental, then clearly it’s not entirely “innate”. Which again raises the question of the empirical intractability of fixing ultimate aims given psychological plasticity.)

    • Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      And what scientific investigation will tell us which consequences we should be maximizing and which innate feelings we should be cultivating?

      Only you can decide for yourself what it is that you want your life to be like.

      Once you’ve settled upon your wants, then what you should do to achieve those goals is straightforward.

      And, since, no matter what your desires may be, you’re going to need the help of the rest of society to accomplish them, you should yourself be a positively-contributing member of society.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        Only you can decide for yourself what it is that you want your life to be like.

        Once you’ve settled upon your wants, then what you should do to achieve those goals is straightforward.

        My thoughts exactly. Science (read: empirical investigation) cannot determine values.

      • Posted September 10, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        Ben, substitute “desires” for “wants” and then follow along with Alonzo Fyfe as to where this leads.

        By the way, he has a very interesting post on Atheist Tribes and the Atheism+ brouhaha at FtB.

        • Posted September 10, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

          I think you’ve got a broken link there…if you could fix it, I’d appreciate it, as it seems like he might have an interesting take on the matter.

          Cheers,

          b&

  19. Lyndon
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    I concur with most of Jerry’s take above, but will say why I do not like using the word “moral”.

    I take a stance of moral anti-realism, but also accept that much of our moral discussion in the past is getting at useful things. If we are holding a discussion about whether stealing is wrong. And you lay out feelings and an analysis of personal and social consequences, say why it is better if we respect each others’ property, and you conclude: therefore we have good moral* reasons not to steal, one should* not steal.

    I would rather we leave out the word “moral” above. Our imagining of a society without stealing, something that empirical frameworks of psychology, economics, and other sciences should help inform us on, and the reasons we come up for why our society will run better without stealing, is simply an imagining and analysis of what our society could look like. The reasons and analysis we give is not moral, in many senses of the word, they are just reasons. Given what most of us want, given that we are not inclined to full blown anarchism, we will probably both be inclined to accept the kind of society where people do not steal.

    Furthermore, when someone says one should* not steal, one should not commit homosexual acts, it is conversationally unacceptable, to me, to play on emotions, to hide phrases, in such a way. When you say “one should not steal,” I accept that you mean something like “one should not steal in order to have a society that will look like this and this.” I would argue, at least in conversations about morality among adults (raising children will be different), we do not need empty dictates stating moral facts in a way that will bottom out in bare facts about social consequences. Those social consequences are hemmed by our genes, and thus brain/mind/behavior structures, and by our present society and history.

    Anyways, that pretty much puts me inline with Harris’s program, but I dislike the qualification “moral” to Sam’s facts about the world, because I think such a qualification is playing on emotional and psychological structures in a way that does not give us the best ability for analyzing those facts and reasons about what our future world and society could look like. Coming to the table of communicative rationality, we can envision what a good society will look like, what rules and expectations of each other will help that society run smoothly, but for the sake of that conversation we do not need to claim that such a society would be the “right” society and that certain actions would be “wrong,” except in the bare sense that those actions would lead to social structures that we agreed we would not want to have.

    • JT
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      The homosexual question is not as difficult to answer if we simply define morality as well-being. We can then ask, does homosexuality encourage or lessen well-being? Now, some people will point out that moral questions cannot be reduced in this way, that morality is extremely difficult to assess, but let me propose an analogous case in the health sciences. Now suppose we were to ask a question like this: does eating this banana lessen or increase my health (and I don’t mean to trivialize homosexuals by this comparison)? Well, the answer is complicated. For someone with diabetes, eating a ripe banana can cause a sugar spike, and thus is unhealthy. But, for most people, eating a banana is relatively healthy, though there are better choices.
      Morality is similar. Just as there is a health continuum, there is a well-being continuum. Sam Harris uses the landscape analogy. A lot of our health questions have very complicated answers, and sometimes what’s good for one person is bad for another. There may be many cases which have the same types of answers in morality, but this should not hinder a science of morality any more than it has hindered the science of health.

      • Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        The homosexual question is not as difficult to answer if we simply define morality as well-being. We can then ask, does homosexuality encourage or lessen well-being?

        Again with the top-down.

        Believe me, you don’t want somebody else, anybody else, to be the one to decide for you what does and doesn’t contribute to your own wellbeing. Only you can define that for yourself.

        Otherwise, you’ll have somebody decide that the wellbeing you lose from the sugar spike caused by the banana is worse for you than the wellbeing you gain from the pleasure of eating it, and prohibit you from eating that banana.

        Those types of decisions must always be left up to the individual.

        The only exception is when your attempts to maximize your own wellbeing come at the unwilling expense of another.

        It is your right to smoke. It is not your right to force me to breathe your second-hand smoke. It is, though, your right to ask me if I mind if you smoke in my presence, and then I can decide if I’d rather put up with the harm that your smoke causes me in exchange for the pleasure your company may bring, and for you to decide if you’d rather put up with the reduced wellbeing from not getting your nicotine fix more than you’d put up with not enjoying the pleasure of my company.

        Even in cases where a person is engaging in self-destructive behavior, with the rare exceptions of crisis prevention where a person is undergoing a temporary breakdown in cognitive function, that person still must have the right to make those choices. If somebody has just had a messy breakup with a spouse and is trying to commit suicide by ODing on heroin, sure, step in. But if that person is an habitual heroin user with no desire to quit, don’t you dare take that needle away, even if the person is chopping years off of life expectancy. Of course, if the person does want to quit, and wants your help in doing so, do everything you can to help. And feel free to convince the cheerful addict to go sober, but shut up as soon as the person makes it clear that your moralizing isn’t welcome.

        But the problem with your example is that homosexuality isn’t even hypothetically any more harmful than any other (consensual) sexual practice. Sure, it’s icky to lots of people, but everybody — and I do mean everybody — has some sort of sexual preference that large numbers of other people find either incomprehensible and / or icky. The fact that I’m turned off by the thought of going at it with another man has no more bearing on whether or not that man should have the right to find a willing partner than the fact that I’m turned off by the thought of going at it with my mother means she and Dad shouldn’t go at it.

        In neither case is it anybody’s business but the people engaging in the acts, which is the alpha and the omega of why everybody else needs to leave well enough alone.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • JT
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

          Oh, I agree that homosexuality is nobody’s business and I don’t think it’s harmful to either individuals or societies.
          However, as it is now, if you make poor health choices, then that’s your business. However, if your poor health choices affect someone else, then we step in. Why should we think any differently about moral choices? If your moral choices do not lead to your own well-being then that’s your choice. But if your moral choices affect others then we step in.

          • Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

            Well, we’re certainly in agreement as far as the basic principles go.

            But I must have missed something with respect to the specifics.

            What, exactly, is it about that homosexuality that could reasonably lead to stepping in the same way we might forcibly quarantine or treat somebody with an infectious disease?

            I can certainly imagine cases involving homosexual acts — rape being the prime example — that would warrant intervention. But the exact same acts with people of differing genders would also warrant intervention, so why the mention of homosexuality? What sets homosexuality apart from other forms of sexuality, or, for that matter, other classes of human behavior?

            b&

            • JT
              Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

              I guess I’m not being clear. I support the right of homosexuals to live their lives free from any and all discrimination, full stop.
              My point that followed the “however” part of my last post had nothing to do with homosexuality. It was my way of moving on, as it were, but I guess I’m not the most transparent writer. Sorry for any confusion.

              • Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

                Ah — understood. Sorry for the communication confusion, and glad to help with the clarification.

                b&

        • Roo
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

          “The only exception is when your attempts to maximize your own wellbeing come at the unwilling expense of another.”

          Personally, I suspect this is what 99% of what we consider morality comes down to (that which allows us to live successfully in groups,) but it’s not such a straightforward question. In your heroin scenario, for example, I could say that people using heroin means less overall contribution to society which, in large numbers, could be quite harmful to my well being.

          • Alex T
            Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

            You could say that but it would be laughable. We all have personal time and how we spend it is our business. If we were to take your argument seriously, we would also criminalize movies, books, art, video games and any distractions which take away from our productivity.

            • Roo
              Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

              I don’t necessarily agree, Alex, but I tend to see everything in continuums rather than hard and fast rules. Leisure time is one end of the continuum (although interestingly, apparently this moral intuition has occurred to some people – some of the more Puritan religions have talk of ‘idle hands’ and so on,) at the other are baskets of crack cocaine for the taking at every corner drug store.

          • Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

            Yes, you could say such a thing, were it not for the fact that you have no rights to the fruits of another’s labor. Which is why I put the full expression thus:

            I. Do not do unto others as they do not wish to be done unto.

            (The First Rule may be broken only to the minimum degree necessary to otherwise preserve it.)

            II. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

            III. An it harm none, do what thou will.

            The rules must be applied in that order. For example, following the second rule is not permissible in circumstances which require
            violating the first rule (except as provided for by the Exception).

            There are more effective and less intrusive methods to electing positive societal contributions from (the damned few) happy heroin addicts than forcible rehabilitation, especially considering the incredibly corrosive effect such a policy would have on society at whole. Remember the Eighteenth Amendment? We tried that experiment with alcohol and it was a miserable failure. We’re trying it again with other drugs, and it’s an even bigger disaster.

            If you’re upset by the way the addict is wasting life, offer something better than heroin or live with your upset. Or just walk away — nothing says you have to have anything to do with addicts.

            …unless, of course, you wish that, were you ever to fall victim to addiction, somebody else would be there to lend you a helping hand to get back on your feet, in which case the second rule says that it’s in your own best interests to be the one to offer the hand.

            Again, not rocket science.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • joe piecuch
              Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

              noble sentiments, but the gloss of virtue is diminished by applying them only to humans.

            • Roo
              Posted September 9, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

              “Yes, you could say such a thing, were it not for the fact that you have no rights to the fruits of another’s labor.”

              Isn’t this exactly the benefit of living in an organized society though? Creation and fulfillment of group goals for the good of all? Or are we talking about the concept in different ways?

              I agree with your assessment about current policies, because from what I can see they actually do nothing to alleviate the problem and drain even more resources needlessly. My overall point is that I think there’s a tendency to assume such things are relatively straightforward when often we have no way of knowing what the far-reaching consequences of an act are, beyond the observable, immediate situation.

              • Posted September 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                You can request assistance from others, and it’s a good idea to barter with them, but you can’t simply demand that they do things for you or give them what you want. If you’re lucky, the response will merely be a hearty, “Fuck off, asshole!” If you try to impose your will upon others, especially for your own personal gain…well, it’ll only be a matter of time before your slaves kill you in an uprising.

                Which is why it’s perfectly reasonable to offer the addict assistance, to cajole the addict into going into a recovery program, and to bribe the addict with a job offer upon successful recovery. You can even refuse to have anything to do with the addict, forcing him to (presumably unsuccessfully) fend for himself — but, again, only if you’d be fine with being similarly abandoned should you find yourself in similar straits.

                But kidnapping the addict and forcing him into a recovery program just so that he can start paying taxes?

                Um…Hell no?

                b&

              • Roo
                Posted September 9, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

                Ok, I pretty much agree with everything you’re saying in this scenario. I’m strongly in favor of individual rights but even I have my limits. Experimenting with LSD? Sure. Free access to heroin because we can all do whatever we want? No, I do think at some point we have to make value judgements about what’s good for the goose and gander. Heroin addicts shouldn’t, in my opinion, be kidnapped and sent to rehab, but I have no problem with policies (as you outlined above) that actively discourage such behavior in societies.

                “If you try to impose your will upon others, especially for your own personal gain…well, it’ll only be a matter of time before your slaves kill you in an uprising.”

                I think we’re coming at this from fundamentally different viewpoints, what you’re describing above doesn’t mirror what I’m trying to convey. I see almost all human communication and interactions as hugely cooperative efforts, and society itself as one gigantic collaboration. I’m at a Starbucks right now enjoying a business I didn’t create, coffee I didn’t brew, a chair I didn’t make, a Macbook I couldn’t have conceived of designing… where else in nature do groups of animals benefit from each other in such an involved way? If I lived in the woods without the benefit of any human assistance, I’d be coyote food by now. It seems to me that, as a species, we’re incredibly reliant on each other and our shared intentionality, whether we like it of not. Or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Tomasello, I don’t know. At any rate, that’s a huge conversation in and of itself so I won’t monopolize the thread with it!

  20. Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne asks me “how do we determine oughts,” not realizing that the question is an amphiboly that embodies the very equivocation between fact and value he had only just claimed to recognize.

    How many times does it need to be said that we are not denying how we do determine our values can be studied empirically? But then we just get the same old boring, predictable bait-and-switch from scientism. “See, here is a description of how I made the decision. So there is no question remaining about whether I ought to have made it that way.”

    Being able to know a genetic fallacy when you smell one is but one of the many benefits of training in philosophy. Any answer I give for how I determine right from wrong, if it is consistent with my recognition of the fact/value distinction, will be prescriptive, not descriptive.

    • Tim Milburn
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Hi, just a comment on the fact/value distinction. It seems to me as if the distinction could not apply at the deepest level, if you want to maintain that there are values or value-determiners. This is because fact and existence are ‘two sides of the same coin':

      There are facts about X if and only if X exists.

      So, to say that a value or value-determiner cannot be identified with any fact at all, is to say that there is nothing existing which is a value or value-determiner.

      This suggests to me that there must be a level of analysis where the fact/value distinction doesn’t apply. Is there anything wrong with this?

      Thanks.

      • Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        It continues to apply if you believe, as I do, in an indifferent universe where what is meaningful or valuable is not given in advance by non-human reality, in the way that gravity and chemistry are.

        There are no facts to be had about what is objectively worthwhile, and so nowhere for the distinction to break down. Now, on discovering that there is nothing objectively worthwhile, some people might claim this means that there is nothing worthwhile, full stop. I think this is a mistake, certainly if it is couched in terms of some sort of logical entailment. It is an emotive reaction, no more or less logically or scientifically valid than the emotive reaction along the lines of “we are free to create our own meaning, and the only sense in which we can leave the universe better than we found it is in terms of our own self-made purposes and values.”

        But this second project is, by hypothesis, not something one can go about doing by accumulating ever more detailed lists of facts.

        • Tim Milburn
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

          As far as I understand, people use the fact/value distinction because they want to claim that values are necessary (or objective) whereas facts are only contingent, so that they could never be indentified. If one thinks that there are no necessary objective values, only contingent subjective values then one wouldn’t use the fact/value distinction, because the contingent subjective values would presumably be identifiable with facts about the subject’s mind/brain (which would have a contingent history, personal and evolutionary). As such, if one is trying to claim that values are only subjective values of individual subjects, presumably given by their constitution, then the last thing to do would be to announce a thorough-going fact/value distinction.

          By the way, I agree with you that moral subjectivism need not extinguish our moral lives in any significant sense. I just don’t understand the use of a thorough-going fact/value distinction in conjunction with moral subjectivism.

        • Vaal
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

          Staircaseghost,

          “There are no facts to be had about what is objectively worthwhile,”

          I take “objectively worthwhile” to be referring to objective value or objective normativity – that is objective moral claims.
          (Am I right?) If so…

          It depends on what you mean by “objective.”
          When it comes to talk of objective value or objective morality, some people only think in terms of “intrinsic” value/morality. That is, the idea that for morality to be “objective” it would mean some set of rules or something residing entirely outside of human beings. Platonic-like ideas.

          But that is not the only sense of “objective.” One meaning of objective often accepted is “true whether you have the opinion it is true or not.” This is pretty much the standard sense in which we talk of objective facts about the universe. The earth revolves around the sun and if someone has the opinion it doesn’t, they are objectively wrong – it’s not a mere matter of opinion. So an “objective” statement is one that has a truth value – it can be true or false.

          One area of objective facts are relational facts (once you have decided what relationship you are measuring and how). Jupiter is larger than earth is a statement about the size relationship. Someone stating otherwise is objectively wrong. I’m taller than my mother – objective fact.

          I favor a moral value theory that posits that morality, and moral statements, are claims about the relationship of desires to states of affairs that do, or would, fulfill desires. So while there is a subjective component (desire) that is only one component, given morality isn’t ONLY about desires, but about what true states of affairs will fulfill desires. (Just as the fact there is an element of “chance” in evolution does not make the process “merely chance,” because evolution is about more than
          mutations and luck – it’s about the relationship of those mutations to survival rates etc).

          So, the possibility of moral objectivity is not denied when you deny intrinsic (or extrinsic) or platonic type “objective” goods. If it turns out “good” is a relational statement, then objectively true statements will be entailed in our moral claims.

          Cheers,

          Vaal

    • Jamie
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      It’s a shame that science (you call it scientism for some reason) bores you. But until you can demonstrate your method for going back into the exact same situation (all inputs precisely the same) and remaking the decision in a different way, your speculation that some kind of “ought,” different from what actually happened, exists is nothing but a fallacy of misplaced concreteness. It’s true that science has some limitations. Metaphysical speculation is one thing science can’t do. That may bore you, but it’s hardly grounds for criticizing science that it doesn’t explicate your favorite metaphysical entities.

  21. Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    “well, how do we determine ‘oughts’”?

    Like Aristotle did in his Nicomachean Ethics, or like Aristotle updated by his contemporary disciple (and JAC’s colleague) Martha Nussbaum. As Aristotle said, several times in his NE, an educated person seeks clarity to the extent that the subject matter allows. Ethics, and much of other philosophical topics, do not allow the degree of clarity and exactness found in math or the natural sciences.

  22. Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    “I cannot see how mere facts could ever settle the issue of what is morally right or wrong, for example.”

    Says it all, really.

  23. Tim Milburn
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Hi, don’t often comment, but here are my thoughts on the question:

    If only the natural world exists, and science can in principle survey and understand the natural world to any level of detail or scope, then there would not be any possibility of worthwhile questions which in principle elude science. The “detail or scope” would include, for instance, a scientific psychology which would explain why people look at the world with a range of intuitively incommensurable concepts, which would however be reduced (this would be pretty advanced).

    Assuming my conditional above, the only way that I can see to make moral questions elude science in principle, would be to posit some sort of dualistic or platonic realm where moral determinants can have their being. Such determinants would thus be understood to be beyond the reach of science. However, that path has serious problems. There is nothing to constrain theorising on that path, so there is a danger that people will make things up and pretend to know them (sound familiar?). Also, if moral determinants are beyond the natural world, how do they effect our natural bodies? If there were some effect then science could study it. These problems and others suggest to me that the naturalistic approach is better, though it does require mental discipline because it is not an intuitive way to think.

    Of course, there is the old epistemological issue of how we can make the assumptions we need to get science started in the first place. This would apply to a “science of morality”, but since this problem is not specific to a science of morality, and applies to science in general and to everyday knowledge, it doesn’t appear to be relevant.

    So, as far as I can see, one either takes the (in principle) scientific approach to morality or one turns towards dualism or platonism (whether one acknowledges this or not).

    • Jamie
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      +1 Very well put!

      • Tim Milburn
        Posted September 10, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        Thanks – I noticed that you posted above that you had an intuition that the is/ought (or fact/value) distinction was faulty but had no idea how to explicate it. I had a go at it in a response to staircase ghost:

        http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/09/09/baggini-vs-krauss-on-science-philosophy-and-morality/#comment-280459

        It is just the idea that facts are existing states of affairs in any part of reality. So to maintain a thorough-going fact/value distinction right down to the ontological or meta-ethical level, is to say that values or value-determiners are not existing states of affairs in any part of reality!

        Probably what people are trying to get at is the idea of a physical-fact/value distinction, so that physical facts can play no role in determining values, whereas some other variety of fact such as a metaphysical fact can. But then they would need to explain why the distinction applies to physical facts, but not to metaphysical facts.

        • Jamie
          Posted September 10, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

          Oooh! I like the way you think!

  24. Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    And again:

    “No factual discovery could ever settle a question of right or wrong.”

    • JT
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Yes it can—if we define morality as well-being.
      Just as factual discoveries showed that smoking is bad for your health, certain discoveries may well be able to tell us that certain activities are bad for your well-being and thus more or less moral.
      See, smoking is pretty bad for your health, but drinking battery acid is worse. In the same way, we have gradations of morality.
      Similarly, sometimes we’ll have gray areas. Typically it’s not overly healthy to have a whole bunch of leaches sucking your blood, but in certain contexts it’s incredibly healthy. In morality, sometimes it will promote well-being to do something in one context, and decrease well-being to do the exact same thing in a different context. The fact that morality changes according to context should not discourage us.
      Of course, this all hinges on us being able to better measure well-being in individuals and societies—something we’re not able to do very well right now. However, there’s no reason to suspect that science will never be able to do this.
      I have one other thing to add: we will often run into areas where a moral consequence is not evident or remains ambiguous. But, we have to remember that almost all the knowledge we have is probabalistic and statistical, and that there is nothing really deductive about it. People seem to accept the problems with induction when it applies to the other sciences, but seem to be demanding an absolute certainty, a deductive method, when it comes to morality. It seems to me that, just like in the other sciences, any science of morality will also be based on probabalistic outcomes. If I can belabor the health analogy, there are always instances where what is accepted as healthy will, for whatever reason, turn out to be unhealthy in a very limited set of circumstances, and may even be destrcutive for certain individuals. The question is, does this completely undermine the health sciences? I say no, because, as cold as it seems, outcomes in the health sciences are also statistical and probabalistic, and that’s the best we can do. I don’t see why we should expect anything different from a science of morality.
      People also say that we may not find out that a certain action actually lessens well-being until much later, therefore making our attempts at a moral science useless. Can anyone here themselves saying this about any other science? Finding out we were wrong is called progress. And often we find out we were wrong because of better methods of measurement. Measurement is the key to any science of morality. Right now it’s in its infancy.

  25. Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    “You and I agree fundamentally that physical reality is all there is, but we merely have different levels of optimism about how effectively and how completely we can understand it via the methods of science.”

    Hooray!

  26. Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    You don’t have to worry about morality if you have a Bible staff to guide you:

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/261093323971?ssPageName=STRK%3AMESELX%3AIT

  27. Myron
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    “‘[W]hy is there something rather than nothing’ is a question best addressed by scientists.” – L. Krauss

    I beg to differ. This question is best addressed by logicians and metaphysicians, because there is no possible physical explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. That is, there can be no sound physical argument whose conclusion is “Therefore, something (physical) exists” and whose premises do not presuppose any physical entities. And if such an argument presupposes some physical entities, it is question-begging.

    Krauss is a trickster, because he’s made the question amenable to scientific investigation by redefining “nothing(ness)”, so that its actual meaning is now: “Why is there something rather than something else which I call ‘nothing’ but which isn’t really nothing.” – But that’s a different question!

    “One can debate until one is blue in the face what the meaning of ‘non-existence’ is[.]“ – L. Krauss

    There is nothing to debate, because it is bleeding obvious that its straightforward meaning is “absence of being/existence/reality/actuality”. That’s what “nonexistence” and “nothingness” mean. Everybody but Krauss knows that. – End of story!

    • Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      There is nothing to debate, because it is bleeding obvious that its straightforward meaning is “absence of being/existence/reality/actuality”.

      Er, no. It’s not at all obvious, because the nothing you’ve just described is indistinguishable from the nothing that’s north of the North Pole, which we already know is meaningless gibberish.

      Sagan’s definition of “Cosmos” is very useful in these sorts of situations: “All that is, was, or ever will be.” When you define “something” in similar terms, it becomes impossible to even articulate a contrasting “nothing.” All we’re left with that’s meaningful that the term “nothing” can apply to is the vacuum — and, surprise! That’s exactly the “nothing” that Krauss describes that, by its very nature, will give rise to all the other “somethings” in the Cosmos.

      You can also look at it from the perspective of set theory. Naïvely, you’d frame it as wondering why there’s anything beyond the empty set. But…well, there you go: you’ve already got the empty set. And you can count the empty set, so you’ve got at least one “thing,” one set, even though it’s empty. Now you’ve got both one and an empty set, and if you can’t build the rest of mathematics from that, then you don’t have much of an imagination.

      And should it all be surprising that what just happened here in logically contemplating nothing is much akin to what actually physically happened with the nothing of the vacuum?

      Cheers,

      &

      • Myron
        Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        Now that the vacuum has turned out to be something rather than nothing, we should stop calling it a nothing simply because we know it isn’t a nothing.
        What would you say to somebody who knows that whales have turned out to be mammals rather than fish but stubbornly keeps on referring to whales as fish?

        • Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

          It depends entirely upon the context in which the person keeps referring to the whales as fish.

          If it’s that whales, along with not only all other mammals but all vertebrates, are, evolutionarily speaking, indeed, fish, then I’d say that’s a pretty good rhetorical technique.

          And Krauss’s use of the term is in exactly that same spirit.

          Of course, if it’s to deny that whales are mammals (rather than to affirm that mammals are fish), then we’d have a problem. But that’s not what Krauss is doing.

          Cheers,

          b&

        • Alex T
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know what definition you’re using of “thing” (probably because you haven’t bothered to give one) but since it’s a colloquial term it’s perfectly reasonable to use a colloquial definition. I’d guess that a thing would be any form of matter and if you want to get creative you could include bosons. When we strip out all of that and are left with empty space, that sounds like a perfectly reasonable definition of “matter”.

          I’m guessing that you’re upset because we’ve discovered that the vacuum still has properties and matter can arise from it. You seem to think that this means it isn’t “nothing”. Well tough, live with it.

          The alternative is to define “nothing” as begin without matter and energy buy also without any physical properties. That’s nonsensical.

          • Myron
            Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

            “Nothing” means “not anything”. Nothingness is the absence of everything, be it things or properties of some kind.

            • Alex T
              Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

              Your definition is circular. You can’t define “nothing” by just saying it’s not a “thing” while leaving “thing” undefined. And once you start considering properties as a “thing”, I think you’ve gone off the deep end.

              • Myron
                Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

                “Nothing” isn’t synonymous with “no thing”. Of course, if you use “thing” synonymously with “something”, then “Everything is a thing” is a truism. But in the narrow ontological sense of the term it is not the case that everything is a thing, i.e. an object or substance. For there are also properties, relations, facts, and events. These aren’t things in the narrow sense but entities just like objects and substances. So, “Nothing exists” doesn’t mean “There are no objects/substances” but “There are no entities”.
                (Anyway, if all objects/substances disappear, all other entities disappear as well, because they depend for their existence on objects/substances.)

              • Alex T
                Posted September 9, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

                Myron,

                “Nothing” isn’t synonymous with “no thing”

                You just defined it as “Nothing” means “not anything”. Nothingness is the absence of everything, be it things or properties of some kind.

                That’s as close to synonymous as it gets.

                In particular, you didn’t give a hint about what a “thing” or “anything” might be. I explained what people consider to be things (matter) and then went a step further and even included particles not normally considered to be matter (now encompassing all fermions and bosons). The vacuum is definitely then “nothing”. At any point in history this would have been a perfectly acceptable definition.

                The only reason you and others complain about it is that we’ve learned that out of nothing something comes!

                And no, a vacuum is not filled with matter and energy as you falsely claimed. It is what you get when you remove all matter an energy, sheesh.

            • Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

              Even then, your hypothetical “nothing” would still have the property of “not having any other properties.”

              Oops….

              b&

              • Myron
                Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

                There are no negative properties, because not to have the positive property P is not to have the negative property –P. So nothingness wouldn’t have the negative property of not having any properties but just lack the positive property of having properties.

              • Myron
                Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

                For example, nonsmokers fall under the concept “nonsmoker” not because they have the negative property of being a nonsmoker but because they lack the positive property of being a smoker. To lack a property is not to have a property!

              • Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

                To lack a property is not to have a property!

                Sorry, it doesn’t work like that.

                Imagine you’re in a room full of people. I tell you, “You’ll have to go introduce yourself to Bob — he’s got some great war stories from his time as a herpetologist at the university. He’s the one over there next to the water cooler, the one missing a right index finger.”

                Bob has a whole host of properties, including his name, his resume, his location…and the property that he lacks the property of a right index finger.

                He also has all sorts of other properties of omission. His mother was not Irish. There is no antimatter in his body. His resume does not include a Ph.D. from Harvard. His first name does not include more than two distinct letters.

                Many of those properties are shared by many people on the planet, of course — but so are many of our positive properties. We (almost) all have 23 pairs of chromosomes. We (almost) all have a head, torso, two arms, and two legs. We’re all mostly composed of water — at least, those of us who’re alive.

                So it is most emphatically the case that lacking a particular property is itself a property.

                Your hypothetical nothingness, for example, is not blue, it’s not wet, and it never had a pint of bitters at the Nag’s Head in London.

                Properties all.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Myron
                Posted September 9, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

                We have to distinguish between the linguistic level of predicates and the ontological level of properties. For there is no 1:1 correspondence between the former and the latter, and not all predicates represent real properties. That the negative predicate “doesn’t have a right index finger” is true of somebody doesn’t mean that there is a real negative property in the world, viz. the property of not having a right index finger.

                The truthmaker of “Bob doesn’t have a right index finger” is not the negative state of affairs of Bob’s not having a right index finger, because this state of affairs doesn’t exist. The statement is true because its negation “Bob has a right index finger” lacks a truthmaker, and a statement lacking a truthmaker is false, which fact implies that its negation is true. Generally, if nothing makes p true, then p is false; and if p is false, then ~p is true.

        • Alex T
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

          As to your whale/fish issue, this is a great example of how words can serve to illuminate but how you’re using it to obscure.

          We say whales are mammals not fish because we take “mammal” to be a monophyletic group and whales evolved from mammals and so are therefore mammals themselves. But we don’t think fish are monophyletic otherwise all mammals would be fish. There’s no a priori reason why this should be so. Just as we exclude tetrapods from fish, we could arbitrarily say that whales are no longer considered mammals. Heck, because whales evolved from fish we could just as easily say that they still are fish.

          Maybe you say that this doesn’t fit with how we understand the terms or that this structure would confuse people. I agree. I think this is the same reason why we should recognize that the vacuum is “nothing”. It fits every historical and modern contemporary definition. If you have some reasons of your own why you don’t think this is right, then at least understand that you’re trying to change the definition. That’s why cladists use taxonomical terms rather than trying to say that mammals are “fish” because we’re all part of the same clade.

          • Myron
            Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

            Actually, the so-called vacuum, i.e. “empty” space, is a plenum: it is a spatially extended, physical substance full of energy.

    • Posted September 10, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      Beware of questions with illegitimate presuppositions. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” presupposes that there could be nothing, which is not in evidence. Even those who thought it made sense (e.g. Leibniz) did not mean it literally; he meant, “why is there something other than god?” by it.

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted September 11, 2012 at 2:48 am | Permalink

        All these arguments that nothingness is impossible BY DEFINITION (therefore, that the universe exists BY DEFINITION) are examples of the famous Ontological Argument.

        Basically, St Anselm argued that the Cristian God is by definition perfect, omnipotent, omnipresent. Failure to exist would falsify those parts of the definition. So, by definition, God exists. Needless to say, this argument only convinces a believer*, but it took hundreds of years for logicians to define exactly what is wrong with it: existence is not a predicate. It doesn’t work for God and it doesn’t work for the universe.

        *However, many scientists straying into philosophical territory make similar claims, that “everything that can exist must exist” etc. Tegmark is the high priest of this stuff.

        • Posted September 11, 2012 at 5:04 am | Permalink

          Unfortunately, while I am certainly not a fan of the ontological argument, never mind theism, there are lots of logical theories with existence predicates.

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted September 11, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

            I should have said existence is not a predicate in a sentence like “God is x” where x is some property, merely a copula.

            The point was not why the ontological is wrong; it was that it has been used here by several.

            You doubt that the “something rather than nothing” question is meaningful because you doubt that there “could be nothing”, which seems to mean, especially in the context of the preceding posts, that nothingness is inconceivable or logically disallowed, equivalent to an assertion that “something” must exist by logical necessity.

            But maybe you mean something different?

  28. Vaal
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Yet another excellent and welcome post, Jerry. Still my favorite bog on the net at this point.

    I think most charges concerning the “limits of science” are bogus and used by people who have something they need to protect from truly rigorous scrutiny. Science is based on epistemological concerns that are fundamental to discerning knowledge itself, and so in principle the virtues embedded in how science approaches a description of the world covers most of what we can know.

    But not all. Simply because science itself wouldn’t “make sense” if it weren’t itself built upon underlying assumptions and values – axiomatic assumptions. And you can’t use the scientific method to support the axiom – because you have already assumed the virtue/axiom in order to “prove” your axiom. It’s just a state of affairs we are stuck in. But while you can’t use the method born of an axiom to prove the axiom, you can justify the axiom in various ways. For instance, you can do a sort of forensic analysis of your assumptions to uncover your axiom – and show it to be the axiom and deny someone else’s claim that we assume a different axiom. We atheists tend to do this with the religious, showing they do not in fact assume God as axiomatic for morality – that instead their assessments of God only make sense if they have already employed a moral axiom/criteria that they bring to assessing God’s morality.

    Anyway, I think Kraus runs afoul of this and can sound a bit naive, falling into the naturalistic fallacy.

    Vaal.

  29. Vaal
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne:

    JC: “But on what grounds, then, do we determine whether homosexuality is right or wrong? It must rest on an appeal to the consequences (which is an empirical and scientific question), on the way most people feel about homosexuality (something that is a combination of our genes and our environment, and coded in our neurons), on sacred books and dogma, or on a combination of these. Ruling out the third, the first two are, in effect, scientific questions.”

    That still seems hoisted upon the petard of the is/ought dilemma.

    Does the fact ITSELF that some portion of humanity feel a certain way about homosexuality tell us whether it is wrong or right? Apparently not: since much of humanity has thought it wrong, but now many of us don’t think it’s wrong. So how does science determine WHICH of us are right? Science can in principle do so, but only on the back of an underlying value theory to justify it’s answer. Even if you think the answer to what we “ought” to do relies on consequences, your value theory still has to inform you of WHICH consequences are “good” and which are “bad.”

    And for those of you who say that “is” doesn’t produce “ought,” I’d like to ask you this: “well, how do we determine ‘oughts’”? 

    No easy answer. But I believe (from a train of thought that seems ever more prevalent among secular moral philosophers) that we get “ought” from a goal or desire. To say “you OUGHT to do X” is to say there is some reason to do X (else the sentence is empty). “Desires” provide the only reasons-that-exist for actions. Without an appeal to a desire, prescriptions and “ought” statements make no sense.

    I “ought” to use this hammer only insofar as it is such as to fulfill a certain goal/desire in question, for instance the desire to successfully hammer in a certain type of nail. Without appeal to any desires, telling me I “ought” to do this, or anything, makes no sense. This makes sense of how “good” arises. To say “X is good” amounts to saying “X IS such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question. ” Something is “bad” insofar as it is such as to thwart the desire(s) in question.

    At this point we are talking of what is often referred to as “prudential” or “practical” (or as Kant would call it a “hypothetical imperative”) and not yet at the subject of moral oughts. Moral oughts concern how we are to treat one another (or other beings) so we ask “Ought we steal?” “Ought we help one another?” “Ought we lie or be honest?” Is it really “true” that we “ought to be compassionate?” etc.

    Since all “oughts” are about supplying reasons-for-actions, and since the only reasons for actions that exist relate to whether X has the tendency of fulfilling a desire(s), we can evaluate desires themselves on these grounds. Does the desire to rape have the tendency to thwart other desires, or fulfill them? Since desires exist (in us) it’s a fully empirical question and has an objectively true or false answer. In the case of rape it’s pretty easy to argue and show that the desire has the tendency to thwart other desires. So the desire to rape would be “bad” for it’s tendency to thwart desires, and the desire to have sex only with someone when the other party desires it as well would be “good” because it is inherently desire-fulfilling. “good” and “bad” actions are evaluated on the grounds of “whether that is an action that someone with a good desire would take.”

    Since we are empirical objects, since desires are ultimately brain states, This resides firmly in the world of “is” – descriptions. And our “ought” statements also amount to being in the world of the descriptive “is.” X IS such as to fulfill the desire in question. So in fact we don’t have to worry about two incompatible realms, the realm of “is” and “ought” for which we can’t find a bridge. All this resides in the realm of “is” with our “ought/prescriptive” statements being a subsection of our “is” statements – our “ought” statements are the subsection of descriptives statements pertaining to claims about what fulfills desires, or not. And such claims are empirical, based on facts about desires that exist and states of affairs (and facts about us and the world) that make the statements true or false.

    Since you asked…:-)

    Vaal

    • Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      Apparently not: since much of humanity has thought it wrong, but now many of us don’t think it’s wrong. So how does science determine WHICH of us are right? Science can in principle do so, but only on the back of an underlying value theory to justify it’s answer. Even if you think the answer to what we “ought” to do relies on consequences, your value theory still has to inform you of WHICH consequences are “good” and which are “bad.”

      Even then, assuming that there would somehow be a single universally-applicable answer to how one “ought” to satisfy sexual desires is as absurd as assuming that there is a single universally-acceptable answer to how one “ought” to satisfy gastronomic desires.

      I like apples. I don’t like bananas. Does that mean that apples are good, bananas are evil, and that people should only eat apples and never eat bananas?

      Such is the absurdity that arises from thinking there exists a universal objective morality, or, indeed, that morality has anything at all to do with how other people choose to live their own lives.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Vaal
        Posted September 9, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        Howdy Ben!

        “I like apples. I don’t like bananas. Does that mean that apples are good, bananas are evil, and that people should only eat apples and never eat bananas?”

        Apples ARE “good” from your perspective. They satisfy a desire you have. What other reason except appealing to a desire could you have for an action, like seeking out and eating an apple?

        And if indeed you like apples, then it’s an objective fact that, “apples are such as to fulfill your desire.” So if you had the desire for a Golden Delicious Apple and I said “you ought to eat that apple” I’m making a claim “that apple is such as to fulfill your desire” and I’m making an empirical claim that is true or false.

        But your desire to eat apples is not in the realm of morality, as that desire pertains to only your set of desires. Morality concerns what happens when beings like us live among one another, and have to decide how we ought to treat one another. So moral “oughts” or moral desires are those desires that “we,” that is any society, has reasons to promote in each other. And given the only reason to say why we “ought” to do anything has to do with desire-fulfillment, we must evaluate a desire’s tendency-to-fulfill other desires in our society.

        And there are indeed objectively true answers therefore to things like “Is the desire to rape bad?” (i.e. is it true we ought not have the desire to rape?)

        You may “like” stabbing people to death. If we look at the “prudential” set of “oughts” relating only to your desires, we can say that “X knife will be good for you” (good for stabbing people to death). But if you turn to the moral subsection of oughts, then you are asking the question “Ought you have the desire to stab people to death?” The answer doubtless will turn out to be “no.” Because that is a desire that tends to thwart other desires when acted upon (desires of the victims). This is how we find reasons to discourage that desires, and promote other desires like “respecting one another’s autonomy” and “desiring to treat others with compassion” etc, which are other-desire-fulfilling desires within a society.

        So yo have not really shown the absurdity or impossibility of objective morality at all.

        Cheers,

        Vaal

        • Gary W
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

          Morality concerns what happens when beings like us live among one another, and have to decide how we ought to treat one another. So moral “oughts” or moral desires are those desires that “we,” that is any society, has reasons to promote in each other.

          “How should we organize our common life together?” That is the business of politics. And people disagree profoundly about not only basic political goals (e.g. the proper balance between liberty and equality), but about how to achieve those goals. You’re not going to resolve basic moral disputes or make a case for “objective morality” by appealing to some principle of maximizing the welfare of society, because people have such different ideas about what “maximizing welfare” even *means*.

        • Gary W
          Posted September 9, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

          But if you turn to the moral subsection of oughts, then you are asking the question “Ought you have the desire to stab people to death?” The answer doubtless will turn out to be “no.”

          As a general rule, yes. But all human societies endorse killing under certain circumstances — in warfare, in self-defense, as punishment for crime, to relieve suffering, etc. I don’t think any successful human society would accept a no-exceptions rule that “you ought not to kill people.” And there’s huge room for disagreement over the exceptions. Indeed, there’s even disagreement about what classes of being, exactly, should count as a “person.”

          Because that is a desire that tends to thwart other desires when acted upon (desires of the victims). This is how we find reasons to discourage that desires, and promote other desires like “respecting one another’s autonomy” and “desiring to treat others with compassion” etc, which are other-desire-fulfilling desires within a society.

          But again, that’s just vague rhetoric. It doesn’t really help with the questions that people tend to disagree strongly over. I expect virtually all liberals and conservatives would agree with the broad principles that we should “respect one another’s autonomy” and “treat others with compassion.” But they might disagree strongly regarding *how much* “autonomy” or “compassion” should be given to, for example, violent criminals.

          • Vaal
            Posted September 10, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

            Gary,

            “by appealing to some principle of maximizing the welfare of society, because people have such different ideas about what “maximizing welfare” even *means*.

            I didn’t say the axiomatic principle is “maximizing welfare of society.” That is indeed
            too nebulous, and it’s one reason why Sam Harris’ “maximizing well being” is problematic.

            Rather, the concept is closer to “maximizing desire fulfillment,” given fulfilling desires is the only way “good” arises in the universe. Desire fulfillment can actually be broken down much more specifically so we can know what it is: X is good = X is such as to fulfill the desire in question. You have a desire for pizza you will find delicious? Then any pizza that fulfills that desire – one you find delicious – will be “good” as it is “such as to fulfill” that desire.

            “Moral” desires are just another category of “hypothetical oughts” (just borrowing Kant’s phrase, though this is a consequentialist theory). They are the ones pertaining to the desires of groups of desires (e.g. a society of people).

            Desires are malleable, open to influence, and societies/cultures spend lots of time promulgating desires. When it comes to living among one another we have to ask “What reasons do we have for encouraging or discouraging certain desires?”
            Well, the only reason you “ought” to do any X has to do with “X’s” tendency to fulfill desires. Given something like rape, rape is “wrong” means we can say that “people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who do X.”

            It’s an empirical claim – that the desire to rape either does or does not tend to thwart more and more desires as it becomes stronger and more prevalent in a society. And pointing to current disagreement on many moral issues is no argument against such a theory of moral realism: people can be and often are wrong about facts of the world.

            “I expect virtually all liberals and conservatives would agree with the broad principles that we should “respect one another’s autonomy” and “treat others with compassion.” But they might disagree strongly regarding *how much* “autonomy” or “compassion” should be given to, for example, violent criminals.”

            But the point is, even if we take the principles upon which we would agree, can we say these principles or prescriptions are OBJECTIVELY true? If they are, then it follows that whatever areas of disagreement there may be…they have objectively true answers as well. The fact that some questions may be more difficult to answer than others is exactly what you’d expect if such a moral realist theory were sound – because our “oughts” will depend for their truth on empirical facts about us and the world, and when has learning empirical facts about the world come easily, and without disagreement?

            This theory may not be sound, but your criticisms unfortunately are not the type to show it’s unsound. You really have to go to it’s fundamentals first off and explain how it’s description of how value does or can arise in the world is wrong. Because if it’s not wrong, then much of the theory follows from there.

            Vaal

          • Gary W
            Posted September 10, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

            Rather, the concept is closer to “maximizing desire fulfillment,” given fulfilling desires is the only way “good” arises in the universe.

            “Maximizing desire fulfillment” is a matter of (subjective) desires. It doesn’t have anything to do with establishing (objective) moral facts. Facts are assertions that are true independently of whether people believe or want them to be true. Even if everyone in the world believed that the moon is made of cheese, that would not mean that it is a fact that the moon is made of cheese. Likewise, even if everyone in the world believed that, say, rape is immoral, that would not mean that it is a fact that rape is immoral. Ditto for any other moral belief. You don’t seem to grasp this basic distinction between facts and values/preferences/desires.

            • Vaal
              Posted September 10, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

              Gary,

              BTW, I do have a good grasp of the fact/value debate and that happens to be why, after looking at so many possible answers I am drawn to this theory.

              Nowhere have I implied this theory reduces to “what everyone believes” so I don’t know why you bring that up.

              Your criticism is missing the mark because I don’t think you’ve grasped yet (or I have not explained clearly enough yet) the central point of this value theory.

              Notice I had written: “And such claims are empirical, based on facts about desires that exist and states of affairs (and facts about us and the world) that make the statements true or false.”

              So, the objectivity of “ought” claims comes from the fact they are claims made about a RELATIONSHIP – the relationship of desires to states of affairs that do or would tend to fulfill those desires. And relationship claims can have objective truth value.

              The earth is larger in diameter than our moon is a relational claim and is held to be objectively true. If you happened to hold the opinion that it was false, you’d be objectively wrong.

              IF the value theory is sound – that is if it correctly uncovers and describes how value arises in the universe – things (or states of affairs) attain “value” insofar as subjective beings like us have desires that can be fulfilled by things (or states of affairs) – THEN our value claims are claims about objective relationships.

              To say “this this drink has value (it is “good”) is to say it is such as to fulfill the desire in question (your desire for a type of drink). Beings with desires, us humans, exist empirically. States of affairs and objects exist that can fulfill desires – another empirical fact. The relationship between them are as “objective”
              as the relationship of height, distance, or any other relational claim about things in the universe.

              As I’ve mentioned before, it’s like evolution. The fact that (as creationists love to latch on to) the evolution process has a random chance component (mutation with respect to fitness) does not mean evolution is therefore a process of “chance,” because
              the OTHER components of the process (natural selection) are non-random, hence it shakes out to be a non-random process.

              You (and you are not alone for people first encountering this value theory) seem to immediately latch on to one component of this value theory – the fact desires are subjective (they are) and from that assume therefore this value theory can not be talking about objective facts. That would be true if desires were the ONLY component, but that’s not the case – real facts about the world and claims about which states of affairs will ACTUALLY fulfill desires make the claims empirical, true-or-false claims.

              Cheers,

              Vaal

            • Gary W
              Posted September 10, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

              So, the objectivity of “ought” claims comes from the fact they are claims made about a RELATIONSHIP – the relationship of desires to states of affairs that do or would tend to fulfill those desires. And relationship claims can have objective truth value.

              Yes, of course there are facts about relationships between desires and states of affairs. That’s not the issue. The issue is your claim that that there are such things as MORAL facts (“objective morality”). That is, moral propositions that are true or false, independently of whether anyone believes or desires that they are true or false. An example of a claim of moral fact would be “Rape is immoral.” Not “John believes that rape is immoral.” Not “John’s belief that rape is immoral helps fulfill his desires.” The issue isn’t beliefs or desires or ways of fulfilling desires. The issue is whether there are such things as moral facts. Nothing you have written suggests that there are.

              • Vaal
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

                Gary,

                “Yes, of course there are facts about relationships between desires and states of affairs.”

                Good! You admit it (where, strangely, you denied the factual nature of just such an example I gave, lower in the thread).

                “That’s not the issue. The issue is your claim that that there are such things as MORAL facts (“objective morality”)”

                It is precisely the issue, because the claim is moral facts are just another TYPE of hypothetical fact.

                The point is that “ought” or “should” prescriptive statements can be best understood as a claim about the factual relationship between a desire and the state of affairs that is likely to fulfill that desire. That logical connection is what makes sense of “You ought to (should) cook chicken to an internal temperature of 165F.” That recommends an action and the only thing that makes sense that you have any such reason for that action is it’s relationship to fulfilling a desire (e.g. your desire to avoid being made sick by pathogens in the chicken).

                So to say you “ought” to heat chicken to 165F if you want to lessen your chances of being made sick” equates to “you have reasons for an action – the reasons arise from the relationship of your desire to the facts that will fulfill your desire.”

                We can ask the same thing of which desires it makes sense to promote, or discourage among one another. And since we have already established that reasons-for-actions arise from the relationship between desires and seeking those states of affairs that will fulfill the desires, then it follows that “Ought we encourage X desire” will be answered by whether “X desire” is such as to fulfill other desires. Is it a “desire-fulfilling’ desire, or a “desire-thwarting” desire.

                If you deny this logic, you have to actually show where it suddenly changes when we evaluate reasons for actions in the case of which desires to promote. Otherwise, you are like a creationist allowing for the logic of evolution to allow “micro evolution” but just special pleading to deny that the process logically continues on to “macro evolution.”

                So…ought we promote the desire to rape?
                No. Why? Rape is an inherently desire-thwarting desire (it gives people reasons to take the action of raping). To be raped is to be forced to have sex against your desire – thwarting your desire.
                It is an EMPIRICAL claim to say that to the degree you would increase the prevalence and strength of the desire to rape in a society, it would have the tendency of thwarting more desires. (Not only the desires of ever more rape victims, but you also have thwarted desires of rapists when, for whatever reason, their rape desire is going unfulfilled).

                Whereas it’s an empirical claim that decreasing the desire to rape among a society will decrease the amount of desire thwarting relating to that desire.

                So it is by pointing to the desire-thwarting nature of rape that we have reasons-to-discourage the desire to rape in our society. Whereas we have REASONS
                to encourage things like “respect for our autonomy” and “sex only when it is desired by the parties involved” because those are desire-fulfilling desires. They are claims about desires and states of affairs where desires would be fulfilled, vs thwarted. Since this relationship between desires and states of affairs that fulfill desires gives us our only reasons for action, the logic is EXACTLY the same for evaluating which desires are “good” or “bad” in a society.

                Again, this value theory may be total bunk.
                But it isn’t bunk on the critique you have given it thus far, since you haven’t in fact accurately identified a weakness.

                Vaal.

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

                Interesting, but the relationship between desire and morality is the opposite of what you suggest. The behaviour of someone who only ever did what he desired would at best be morally neutral in my opinion. It is only when you decide you ought to do something DESPITE your desire/inclination/convenience that you may be behaving morally. If you prefer/desire to read the sports page before the news, you do so without any moral implication. If you prefer not to undergo surgery but nevertheless you donate bone marrow to a stranger, that is a moral good. If you undergo surgery because you have Munchausen syndrome, that is at best morally neutral. Human beings are moral entities (or believe themselves to be so) only because they are the only entities that don’t (or believe they don’t) follow that line of least resistance.

                The unwieldy parentheses are necessary because, of course, morality is tied up with free will.

              • Vaal
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

                logicophilosophicus,

                “Interesting, but the relationship between desire and morality is the opposite of what you suggest. “

                That’s a common, though mistaken, reaction to this theory, and an understandable one.
                After all, doesn’t it seem a feature of moral choices that moral actions seem in tension with what we actually desire? Doesn’t morality often ask us to subjugate our desires to some moral good? If so, that seems to indicate that morality is ultimately not based on our desires.

                Here’s the explanation: Of course we have many desires, some of which are in tension.
                That’s life. It’s messy.

                But we can categorize our “oughts” – there are hypothetical/prudential “oughts” that determine what ACTIONS you should take given a desire you have (or what X will have value to you, given it’s tendency to fulfill the desire in question).

                Then there are “moral” oughts, which has as their focus desires themselves: which desires
                do we have reasons to promote or discourage among each other. They are the desires that you have reasons to want other people to share.

                You may want to be a professional tennis player, but you won’t have reasons to promote that same desire in everyone else – a society of only art dealers will leave no one to get important other things done, like growing food, medicine and all the other jobs.

                But you DO have reasons to promote the desire that, say, “we ought to respect each other’s property and not steal it.” We all have reasons to discourage the desire for others to steal our stuff.

                So when it comes to whether you “ought to do X” the question will be “from what perspective, what category are you asking?”

                If you are asking whether you ought to wait until your neighbor is out before you steal his stereo, well, if your desire is to do so without getting caught, the answer is most likely “yes.” But that is not from the moral category. If you asked instead “is it MORAL for me to steal my neighbor’s stuff?” that
                answer is going to be “no.” Because the desire to steal is a desre-thwarting desire.
                You have reasons to want ME not to have this desire, and I have reasons to want YOU not to have this desire. So, yes your prudential urge or desire to steal may be in tension with the moral answer that you ought not have the desire to steal. But this is what we’d expect in a complicated world.
                If I’m hungry should I eat that doughnut? Yes, from that perspective. If I want to stay on my diet ought I? No. Both are true. So “yes” you may want to conceal yourself if you want to get away with stealing, but NO it’s not moral to steal.

                Vaal

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

                Thanks Vaal.

                I feel a bit guilty making you work so hard to flog a dead horse. I know the theory but I don’t accept/agree. Wittgenstein said something like: “I don’t know why we’re here – but it certainly isn’t to enjoy ourselves…” I think your analysis is possibly correct for a lot of people, but morality depends on capacity. Marx said: “From each according to his ability,” and in he moral sphere I think that is true. I don’t mean that the more able should be saintly, just that they have (should have?) a different agenda. Most academics/intellectuals never analyse this, but behave as if they had: they demonstrate a fairly austere sense of duty to pursue scientific, philosophical or artistic truth. This is particularly evident when they become imassioned or indignant about something which undermines that ideal. In terms of Darwinism, if that is a “desire” it is misdirected/nonselective. For me, it is evidence of purpose.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

                It is precisely the issue, because the claim is moral facts are just another TYPE of hypothetical fact.

                And that claim is obviously false. Claims of empirical fact can be tested using the methods of science. Claims of moral fact cannot. We can prove that the moon is made of rock and not cheese. We cannot prove that murder is immoral. There is no reason to believe that moral claims, such as “murder is immoral,” are facts rather than statements of preference.

                The point is that “ought” or “should” prescriptive statements can be best understood as a claim about the factual relationship between a desire and the state of affairs that is likely to fulfill that desire.

                No, to “understand” moral prescriptions as empirical facts is to confuse matters of preference with matters of truth. You may be able to prove a factual relationship between an action and an outcome, but you cannot prove that people “ought” to act in a certain way.

                We can ask the same thing of which desires it makes sense to promote, or discourage among one another. And since we have already established that reasons-for-actions arise from the relationship between desires and seeking those states of affairs that will fulfill the desires, then it follows that “Ought we encourage X desire” will be answered by whether “X desire” is such as to fulfill other desires. Is it a “desire-fulfilling’ desire, or a “desire-thwarting” desire.

                No, that does not answer the “ought” question. Your unstated premise is that we “ought” to act to maximize the overall fulfillment of desires. But you cannot prove that we “ought” to do that. It’s just your subjective preference. Other people have different preferences.

                Once again, you just don’t seem to be able to grasp the fundamental distinction between facts, which can be proved using science and reason, and values, which cannot.

              • Vaal
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

                logicophilosophicus,

                No problem. I’m not really going around insisting I’ve got The Truth (™)
                in regards to moral theory. I’m just for now defending one version that I find
                compelling, especially in terms of it’s approach to the is/ought fact/value dilemma.

                Vaal.

              • Vaal
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

                Gary,

                Your replies amount not to arguments that actually show the flaws in my argument; instead they are versions of “no, you are wrong.”

                “You may be able to prove a factual relationship between an action and an outcome, but you cannot prove that people “ought” to act in a certain way.”

                Here you are acting like the creationist who is willing to admit that heritable variation + natural selection pressures may produce “micro evolution” (minor variations in “kinds”) but refuses to
                acknowledge the logic continues on to “macro evolution” (the relatedness of all life to common ancestors). Without actually showing where the logic breaks down.

                IF you accept the logic that FACTUAL statements can be made about the relationship between desires (like boiling water etc) and actions/states of affairs that will fulfill desires, then on what grounds do you say the logic no longer applies actions taken to promote or discourage desires themselves?

                You don’t actually show where the logic breaks down; you just flat out deny it continues. It’s special pleading at this point.

                Where DO you think reasons-for-actions come from, if not from the factual relationship between our desires and “that which will fulfill the desire(s) in question?” It seems you’ve already admitted the logic is sound for hypothetical/prudential desire/action statements.

                So how is it this logic can suddenly break down when we ask “Ok, so what reasons do we have to act to discourage or encourage X desire in people?” If you can’t produce any OTHER
                ontological basis other than desire fulfillment for why we ought to take any action, then it stands that when we are trying to decide which desires to promote or discourage (actions) it must be done by appeal to desire fulfillment – which desires tend to fulfill other desires (good) and which tend to thwart other desires (bad). And these will be empirical claims, like it or not.

                One of the main strengths of this theory is how precisely it addresses the purported act/value distinction. It is a very precise way of showing why all prescriptive statements reside in the world of “is.”

                It’s one thing to just deny this theory does this; it’s another to actually show the logic wrong, which you keep missing unfortunately.

                I always have the strongest feeling that debates like these would go much better, with much less misunderstanding between us, if we were talking, rather than exchanging posts. In back and forth conversation, misunderstandings and strawmen can be flagged much more immediately I believe.

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

                Wading past your worthless rhetoric and trying to focus on comments that are actually relevant and substantive, we get to this:

                IF you accept the logic that FACTUAL statements can be made about the relationship between desires (like boiling water etc) and actions/states of affairs that will fulfill desires, then on what grounds do you say the logic no longer applies actions taken to promote or discourage desires themselves?

                I don’t say that. For the umpteenth time, I’m saying that there are no such things as moral facts. The basic problem is that you keep confusing claims of moral fact (e.g., “Rape is immoral”) with claims of empirical fact (e.g., “In order to fulfill the desire of boiling water, it is necessary to heat it to 100 degrees”). Part of your confusion seems to arise from the fact that you insist on phrasing statements of means-to-ends empirical fact using words that in conventional usage imply a moral obligation, as with your “ought” to heat water and “ought” to cook chicken statements.

                If you can’t produce any OTHER
                ontological basis other than desire fulfillment for why we ought to take any action,

                I’m not sure what “ontological basis” is supposed to mean here, but if you know anything about moral philosophy you must surely know that there are many competing ideas about the basis on which we “ought” to act.

                But this is irrelevant to the point, anyway. None of these competing ideas suggest that there is any such thing as a moral fact. You may want people act in such a way as to maximize the overall fulfillment of desires, but that’s just your personal preference. It’s not a fact. You can’t demonstrate that people “ought” to act in that way any more than, say, a Catholic can demonstrate that people “ought” to act in accordance with the teaching of the Catholic Church.

              • Vaal
                Posted September 12, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

                Gary,

                I don’t say that. For the umpteenth time, I’m saying that there are no such things as moral facts.

                The basic problem is that you keep confusing claims of moral fact (e.g., “Rape is immoral”) with claims of empirical fact (e.g., “In order to fulfill the desire of boiling water, it is necessary to heat it to 100 degrees”). Part of your confusion seems to arise from the fact that you insist on phrasing statements of means-to-ends empirical fact using words that in conventional usage imply a moral obligation, as with your “ought” to heat water and “ought” to cook chicken statements.

                I’m not confusing them; I’m pointing out that IF it’s the case that we only get reasons-for-actions from our desires and actions that will tend to fulfill those desires – and you haven’t once produced any actual argument to show this is wrong – THEN it follows that our moral “ought” statements would have the same basis. That moral oughts therefore ARE a category of hypothetical ought, just like “If you desire water to boil you ought to heat it to 100 c.”

                When a society says “rape is wrong” it means that the society has reasons to discourage the desire to rape. Where do reasons-for-actions come from? From pursuing states of affairs that will fulfill desires.
                You simply have not directly addressed this logic. You’ve just repeated blanket denials.

                So when you repeatedly say things like:

                I don’t say that. For the umpteenth time, I’m saying that there are no such things as moral facts.

                You are indeed being like the creationist who says “I acknowledge natural selection can produce micro changes in animal kinds, but I REJECT the further leap – I’m saying there is no such thing as MACRO evolution on the level suggested by you evolutionists!”

                The creationist can announce that exception as loudly and often as he likes, but without a good argument showing WHY the logic of micro evolution doesn’t translate to the logic of macro evolution, he’s arguing into the wind.

                Same with you in this conversation: The theory may be wrong. It may be crap. You can keep repeating the charge I am confusing hypothetical with moral oughts all you want, but until you truly address what is being said and actually produce an argument showing where the logic breaks down…not just exclaim that it breaks down but show it! – then you haven’t engaged the theory.

                But, since I don’t expect any change in how this post will be received, I’ll bow out, and hopefully it has been interesting to others watching.

                Thanks for the conversation, Gary!

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

                I’m not confusing them; I’m pointing out that IF it’s the case that we only get reasons-for-actions from our desires and actions that will tend to fulfill those desires – and you haven’t once produced any actual argument to show this is wrong – THEN it follows that our moral “ought” statements would have the same basis.

                No it doesn’t. Just because acts fulfill desires does not mean that those acts are “objectively moral.” I understand that you prefer that people act in such a way as to maximize the fulfillment of desires, but that’s just YOUR PREFERENCE. It doesn’t mean that it is an objective fact that people “ought” to act in a way that maximizes the fulfillment of desires. You can’t show that your preference is “true.”

                When a society says “rape is wrong” it means that the society has reasons to discourage the desire to rape. Where do reasons-for-actions come from? From pursuing states of affairs that will fulfill desires. You simply have not directly addressed this logic. You’ve just repeated blanket denials.

                No, when a society says “rape is wrong” that merely means that, for whatever reason, society has decided that people ought not to rape. It most certainly does not mean that “rape is wrong” is a fact.

  30. Myron
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    “Naturalism in ethics, like attempts to square the circle and to ‘justify induction’, will constantly recur so long as there are people who have not understood the fallacy involved. It may therefore be useful to give a simple procedure for exposing any new variety of it that may be offered. Let us suppose that someone claims that he can deduce a moral or other evaluative judgement from a set of purely factual or descriptive premisses, relying on some definition to the effect that V (a value-word) means the same as C (a conjunction of descriptive predicates). We first have to ask him to be sure that C contains no expression that is covertly evaluative (for example ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ or ‘satisfying’ or ‘fundamental human needs’). Nearly all so-called ‘naturalistic definitions’ will break down under this test – for to be genuinely naturalistic a definition must contain no expression for whose applicability there is not a definite criterion which does not involve the making of a value-judgement. If the definition satisfies this test, we have next to ask whether its advocate ever wishes to commend anything for being C. If he says that he does, we have only to point out to him that his definition makes this impossible, for the reasons given. And clearly he cannot say that he never wishes to commend anything for being C; for to commend things for being C is the whole object of his theory.”

    (Hare, R. M. The Language of Morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952, pp. 92-3)

    “[B]oth naturalism and my own view lay great stress on the fact that, when we make a moral judgement about something, we make it because of the possession by it of certain non-moral properties. Thus both views hold that moral judgements about particular things are made for reasons; and the notion of a reason, as always, brings with it the notion of a rule which lays down that something is a reason for something else.”

    (Hare, R. M. Freedom and Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963. p. 21)

    That is, saying that x is good/right because it has such and such non-normative properties is different from saying—as the metaethical naturalists do—that “x is good/right” means “x has such and such non-normative properties”.

  31. Marella
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Science is the method we use to discover reality, and a name for the reality we discover. If reality can’t inform ethics I have no fucking idea what could!!

  32. Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    People are going about this backwards. The very first step has to be laying out what we expect from other people and why. It’s rather arbitrary: which perspective are we coming from?

    From a psychopath’s point of view, anything that benefits (him/her) is okay. Going all the way to the other extreme, some enviromnetal and animal activists (hypothetically, that is) claim we should all kill ourselves to save the planet.

    And everything else in between. So if we think of ourselves as just another primate on this planet, who happens to be aware of the damage we’re doing, we should use the science of primate biology to realize we can’t say how similar they are to us and simultaneously do things to them that make the worst concentration camps pale in comparison.

    If we think of ourselves as just another living thing on Earth (that would be my view) then we have to nearly go back to living in caves to undo the damage we’ve done. Did we really think we could get away with raping the planet forever?

    Those are just 2 examples. So lay the groundwork for morality first, THEN you’ll know how science informs your point of view. But really, it is only a point of view unless we compare primate “morality” to our own, which is a whole other topic.

    • Posted September 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      From a psychopath’s point of view, anything that benefits (him/her) is okay.

      The psychopath still wants all the benefits of a healthy society; he’s just lacking the cognitive abilities to understand the harmful-to-him consequences of his anti-social actions; thus, the psychopaths who become repeat criminal offenders.

      That, or he’s adept at exploiting the social instincts of others, and those others need beefier social immune systems to prevent the parasite from taking advantage of them. Bernie Madoff is in jail, but he should be joined by a great many others. All those bosses from Hell wouldn’t be a problem if workers banded together in a…oh, I don’t know…a collective union that bargained for their rights to be free from that type of bullshit.

      Going all the way to the other extreme, some enviromnetal and animal activists (hypothetically, that is) claim we should all kill ourselves to save the planet.

      Surprisingly enough, few of them actually follow their own vocal protestations and commit suicide. Those who might have, of course, got bred out of the gene pool many many many many many many many millennia ago.

      The ones today who say such things realize that they’re dependent on society to achieve there preservation goals…which, again, puts them right back to square one of requiring that they pay their taxes and vote and help the little old lady next door get her groceries from the car.

      Go figure.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • joe piecuch
        Posted September 9, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

        “Surprisingly enough, few of them actually follow their own vocal protestations and commit suicide. Those who might have, of course, got bred out of the gene pool many many many many many many many millennia ago.
        The ones today who say such things realize that they’re dependent on society to achieve there preservation goals…which, again, puts them right back to square one of requiring that they pay their taxes and vote and help the little old lady next door get her groceries from the car.”

        shell game! sloppy sleight of hand! i guess it’s more like sequential straw men, but it’s clumsy nonetheless.

  33. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    “scientism” (which he defines in this piece as the insistence “that, if a question isn’t amenable to scientific solution, it is not a serious question at all”)

    I should like to point out that jsut because a question is serious does not mean that the answers on offer are. The answers offered by religion are rather pathetic. Are the answers offered by philosophy any better?

    • Bebop
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      Religion is an attempt to give life a meaning. And because the religions that are still going on today began thousands years ago, a lot of what they are saying is not in phase with our time. But there is a core in most religions that still resonates today, specially the oriental ones.

      Because philosophy and religion addresses topics that can’t be measured or testable, there will always be a relative “artistic” blur with their answer. That doesn’t make them unreal, or untrue. Life can’t be reduced to what can be measured or testable. Humans are well placed to know this.

      I don’t get how someone can say that science can have all the answers. Or that scientific progress implies that philosophy will see its territory shrink.

      Meaning is something science can’t address for the simple reason that objectivity itself can only exist because of subjectivity

      • Posted September 10, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

        Religion is an attempt to give life a meaning.

        No, religion is the ultimate exercise in power politics. Somebody claims to speak on behalf of the ultimate power in the universe, and who’re you to question said power?

        And because the religions that are still going on today began thousands years ago

        Never heard of Scientology? Miss the news of the death of Rev. Moon? Never had the Morons or the Jehovah’s Witlesses come knocking?

        I don’t get how someone can say that science can have all the answers.

        Science doesn’t have all the answers — of course. But, if science is fundamentally incapable of answering a question, then that question is unanswerable.

        Of course, that doesn’t stop people from putting forth bullshit answers to unanswered or unanswerable questions — that’s what religion does second-best.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Dave Ricks
          Posted September 11, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

          I can say “Religion is an attempt to give life a meaning” and “Religion is the ultimate exercise in power politics”. You used the verb “to be” (“is”) in the mode of a statement like “two plus two is four,” where “two plus two” can be only one thing.

          We both like Eric Berne’s book Games People Play to help us see patterns in human behavior. For the same reason, I can recommend David Bourland’s book To Be Or Not to help us see things people do with the verb “to be”.

          Incidentally, I heard David Bourland give an interview on NPR years ago, completely in E-Prime (avoiding any use of the verb “to be”). He said people generally didn’t notice, except they might notice his verbs were more colorful.

  34. Posted September 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    re: “Now, however, I’m coming around to Sam’s view.”

    Sam is propelling us toward a healthier paradigm.

    And I’m very pleased to see this: “…jettison completely our notions of morality…ineluctable conclusion…incompatibilist…”

    We must dump arbitrary selfish morality for community ethics.

    From http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-particularism/

    “Moral Particularism, at its most trenchant, is the claim that there are no defensible moral principles, that moral thought does not consist in the application of moral principles to cases…”

    As usual, we cherry pick “moral principles” to suit our desires.

  35. Mickey Mortimer
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    As you asked for reader opinions, mine is that morality is like taste. Each individual has certain reactions to certain things, and they’re roughly similar between people since we have similar brains and cultures, but there’s no objective truth to whether actions are wrong or right. Murder isn’t objectively wrong just as feces isn’t objectively untasty, but most of us have the same reactions concerning both.

    Thus morality beyond the individual isn’t a scientific question, though designing policy around and examining the basis for individual morality could be considered serious. Some questions have no objective answer, but as a society we need to reach a subjective consensus on them to get results that match our individual values best.

  36. MNb
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    “morality lies in our neurons”
    Sounds like the is/ought fallacy to me. The neurons telling us what’s right and what’s wrong is based on the unjustified assumption that the neurons can’t be mistaken.

    • Jamie
      Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      uh… is that a joke? It matters little that they may be wrong… there is no other source. If you think, “that’s wrong” that’s neurons causing you to think that. If you read in some sacred book that X is wrong… that’s neurons that allow you to read it and it was neurons that wrote it in the first place. It’s neurons that tell you to accept it or to reject it. If you feel revulsion, that’s neurons. It’s neurons if you feel a warm glow of satisfaction. If you think you hear the voice of god telling you directly, telepathically, or you listen to your “inner voice” it’s all neurons. The thought that the neurons might be mistaken is neurons. Without neurons, no thought, no values, no vision, no hearing, no feeling, just some simple chemical signaling systems with immediate effects but no way to process the signals, no awareness, no consciousness… no morals.

      So yeah, absolutely, morality lies in our neurons! Unless it’s an objective property of the universe, like gravity. (In which case it would apply equally to rocks and trees and random molecules, etc. Bad electron! You know better than that! Get over there in that hydrogen atom like you’re supposed to! lolz.)

  37. WML
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to know how science can tell us something about the morality of an action that produces many wonderful consequences for many people, but violates human (or perhaps animal) rights in the process for fewer individuals. I can see how science might be able to tell us whether (after an action is taken) the net result was more good than harm, but can science tell us whether doing more benefit than harm (in actuality or anticipated for future actions) justifies the harm in particular situations?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 10, 2012 at 1:01 am | Permalink

      There are two inter-related problems here. 1. How do we balance the consequences of the two alternatives e.g. mild benefit for a lot of people vs. huge suffering for a few (or any other set of disparate outcomes you care to envisage). And, 2, how can we ever predict what the consequences are going to be?

      And I think often (2) is the bigger problem.

  38. Harbo
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Free will or otherwise, I just “want” to have a good a time as possible, with no, or minimal, damage to:
    1 Me
    2 Other people
    3 The Environment

    The order varies with mood…

    Is altruism just “evolved selfishness”…and does this make morality “intelligent selfishness”?

    Great chat this one, lots to chew on, Thanks everyone.

    Ficus Rules

  39. Dave Ricks
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    I check these discussions with an analogy between morality versus musical intonation, or the temperament of musical scales.

    I’m all in favor of science studying morality and musical scales as natural phenomena (to steal the phrase from Daniel Dennett), and I’m happy to say we can make observations, e.g.,

    • Different cultures tend to agree that a doubling of vibration frequency makes the “same pitch” (an “octave higher”). But I know an exception for even that basic rule (I’m sorry, maybe my HQ video links for my example on this Jean Kazez thread went stale, and I’ll re-post video links there sometime).

    • Different cultures tend to use up to 8 “pitches” to complete a “one octave” scale, but not more than 8, which is worth noting. Because exactly where cultures place the pitches relative to each other involves very fine resolution in frequency, yet a vocabulary of more than 8 would be unintelligible (where I’m supposing intelligibility is our limitation).

    So I’m happy to say science can make these observations — that there seem to be some constrains on these human preferences and values. But how far can science take this — A) To say what humans do prefer or value, then B) To say what humans should prefer or value?

    To rephrase this for a scientist: Which is the “easier” versus “harder” problem? I bet you’ll agree, the “easier” problem is musical intonation, or the temperament of musical scales (before morality). To what degree can you visualize science mastering it?

    As a footnote, as I’m writing this, I’m listening to Sirius stream 053 Chill (electronica), where almost every musical pitch is created by synthesizer oscillators detuned to make a slightly vague cloud of pitch. So to a music conservatory graduate who would say the very principle of harmony is adjusting pitch to make the beats go away, I note that practically every single pitch on this radio stream has beats, and this is pleasant.

    • Posted September 10, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      Erm…all Western music for the past few centuries is based on a twelve-tone (“chromatic”) scale, and there’re other cultures with even more complex scales….

      b&

      • Posted September 11, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        No, in music theory it’s considered an eight-note scale. There are twelve notes per octave, but songs are written in keys, and each key takes only certain notes out of the twelve and “uses them.” If you have a song in the key of C major, then the “in key” notes for that song are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, and any other notes are considered “out of scale” – also known as “accidentals.” Accidentals are known for increasing the tension in the song precisely because they are out of scale.

        In the cognitive neuroscience of music, it is noted that many musical systems limit the number of notes used in their songs by creating scales (Western music has eight notes, the pentatonic scale obviously has five, etc.) This is theorized to be due to working memory constraints or some such (but we don’t really know).

        • Posted September 12, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

          Sorry, but, respectfully, you’re waaaaaay off base here. I should know — my degree is in music.

          You have to go all the way back to Gregorian Chant to find a time when achromatic modality ruled the roost. And, even then, the foundations were being solidly laid for full-on chromaticism.

          Aside from the last, and sometimes first, measures, you can’t find a single measure in anything that Bach wrote that didn’t have at least some “out-of-key” notes in it. You can’t even complete introductory first-day college-level music theory assignments without chromaticism. And you can’t play a single measure of a twelve-bar blues progression without chromaticism.

          And Bach was hardly the first composer to embrace chromaticism — not by centuries. He merely formalized and unified what were already long-standing practices. Indeed, look to some of the sixteenth-century madrigals for some delightfully “crunchy” music that’s far more adventurous than any top-40 melody you’ll hear today — that’s when chromaticism first really took off, and composers have never looked back since.

          And, of course, then there’s serialism….

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted September 12, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

            That certainly doesn’t look like “c&p blocks of text from pre-written material”. Neither did any of your other posts.

            How would one ever accomplish a key change without chromatic tones?

            Let’s not forget the demitones found in Indian and Arabic music.

            I think that Asian folk music and native American music is pentatonic (it sounds like it is). But this is traditional, not modern. The simplest blues and rock is mostly pentatonic, but not exclusively (passing notes). And if you look at jazz or classical or modern orchestral, chromatic is usual.

          • joe piecuch
            Posted September 12, 2012 at 7:34 am | Permalink

            “…all Western music for the past few centuries is based on a twelve-tone (“chromatic”) scale…I should know — my degree is in music.”

            and yet you overlook harry partch, ives, debussy, lou harrison, julian carrillo…just to name a few!

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted September 12, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

              You are basically agreeing with the original point, that music is more complex than 5 or 8 tones, and that beyond the 12 tones there are “even more complex scales”. You have noted some exceptions that have experimented with microtones, but even debussy for example was mostly if not totally based on the chromatic 12 tones.

              The phrasing “and yet you overlook” makes it appear you are objecting or arguing, when in fact you are confirming the original point. I hope you don’t expect people to cite every instance of a phenomenon they refer to. Seems like nitpicking and spoiling for a fight to me.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted September 12, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

                no, sir, i am disagreeing with the claim that “…all Western music for the past few centuries is based on a twelve-tone (“chromatic”) scale…”, which is an unfounded generalisation, easily demonstrated to be false by citing just a few of the numerous examples of western composers who have either experimented or worked almost exclusively with microtonal scales. the contrasting of ‘western’ with ‘other’ cultures was contained in the statement to which i objected. i took issue with a sweeping claim which did not stand up to scrutiny.

                “The phrasing “and yet you overlook” makes it appear you are objecting or arguing…”

                indeed, i am. an argument from authority must be authoritative to avoid being fallacious.

                “I hope you don’t expect people to cite every instance of a phenomenon they refer to.”

                of course not. but i would hope people would not make broad, insupportable statements.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted September 12, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

                It seems you have deliberately overlooked the intermediate post that clarified the statement.

                Technically you are correct, his statement can be invalidated by mentioning one song that is either major scale tonality or microtonal experimentation.

                That is what I mean by nit picking. You are making no effort to understand his point, and raising an objection that amounts to an obtuse level of literalism, which is enough to try anyone’s patience. Ben’s follow up post elucidates the obvious intent of the remark, which is to indicate that by “Western Music” he means that of serious composers.

                Even your microtonal examples have a basis in the twelve tones, in that the twelve tones are the departure they are working relative to.

                The original point was to expand the overly narrow generalization of music being confined to 8 notes, which is a point your mention of microtonal composers actually reinforced.

                Going back to Dave and Tim’s points, in their favor probably the vast majority of humans find it easier to listen to consonance than dissonance, even though once you acquire a taste for polytonal or atonal music, the lack of dissonance in most popular music makes it seem kind of cloying or trivial.

                Really there is truth on all sides of this discussion: serious modern compositions in Western music are mostly chromatic, though as you point out, not exclusively limited to twelve tones.

                Most popular and folk music, which means most music most people spend the most time listening to, avoids dissonance and limits itself to 5 or 8 tones.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted September 12, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

                “It seems you have deliberately overlooked the intermediate post that clarified the statement.”

                i’m not sure to which of the intermediate posts you refer, but since none of them, including ben’s, reference western use of microtonality, your objection is without basis.

                “Technically you are correct…”

                that’s what i was aiming for.

                “…his statement can be invalidated by mentioning one song that is either major scale tonality or microtonal experimentation. That is what I mean by nit picking.”

                i mentioned a number of composers, most if not all of whom are considered ‘serious composers’ of western music; i could have tediously gone on to list many more, but i thought the point was made. you call it nitpicking, i call it pointing out an egregious error.

                “Even your microtonal examples have a basis in the twelve tones, in that the twelve tones are the departure they are working relative to.”

                i suggest that harry partch, were he able, would object strenuously to that claim!

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted September 12, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

                I rest my case.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted September 12, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

                no, sir; my previous post ‘meant’ that i rested MY case, so i beat you to it. sorry.

          • Posted September 12, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

            Hmm… well I’m out of my depth here, so this will be more questions than statements, but-

            Googling around the internet returns me a number of sources that say that the scales primarily used in Western music are 7-note scales. For example, this entry from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Also,this paper asserts that “compositions in Western classical, folk and popular music as well as in many other musical traditions are based on a relatively small number of scales that typically comprise only five to seven tones.”
            Indeed, if I’m not mistaken, blues scales, major and minor scales, harmonic scales, whole tone scales, diminished scales, etc. all use 7 or 8 notes.

            So in what sense is Western music primarily based on a chromatic scale? I understand that out-of-scale notes will still be used, but the sources I have read on music theory (about which I admittedly know very little) still describe these scales as 7 or 8 notes, not 12.

            Although when it comes to the neuroscience of music, this is almost beside the point. Even if all our scales were 12 notes, twelve is still much less than the 240 pitches humans can discriminate per octave (as per the paper linked above). So even with 12 notes we have quite limited ourselves, and there must be a reason for this, because it apparently has been done often and by different peoples who composed their music independently.

  40. squinky101
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    JAC,
    I’m glad to see you come around to Harris’s moral landscape thesis. I know that you (and Blackford) had issues with it but I never understood why there was so little support for the idea.. I loved the book and agree with him that all honest, moral, non-religious people must be using some data to inform their moral principles or they would truly be susceptible to charges of moral relativism. Science CAN, in principle, answer moral questions–how could it not when we are mentally trying to do moral statistical analysis every day? That we often engage in behaviors that most assuredly lead to a local minimum in human flourishing (or increase suffering), we should change our behavior accordingly. I think Sam’s use of argumentum ad absurdum (worst possible misery for everyone, or no-brainier examples such as the Taliban throwing battery acid in the faces of girls) hurt his case by making a very profound and well-articulated thesis appear oversimplified or intuitively obvious by only tackling the easy cases.

  41. Gary W
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    And for those of you who say that “is” doesn’t produce “ought,” I’d like to ask you this: “well, how do we determine ‘oughts’”?

    As I don’t think there’s any such thing as moral facts or moral truths, I don’t think we can “determine” them in that sense. We can use science to determine why people hold the moral beliefs they do, but we can’t use science to establish moral facts. Moral beliefs are ultimately matters of preference, not fact.

    • Jamie
      Posted September 10, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      Hmm… so you don’t think there could ever be a science of preference? Do you think the fact of my preference for apple pie is somehow less a fact than the existence of the pie? Do you think that preferences have causes?

      • Gary W
        Posted September 10, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Hmm… so you don’t think there could ever be a science of preference? Do you think the fact of my preference for apple pie is somehow less a fact than the existence of the pie? Do you think that preferences have causes?

        You are confusing moral beliefs with moral facts. As I said, we can use science to study the causes of moral beliefs (e.g., why people believe that murder is immoral), but that’s not the same thing as discovering moral facts (e.g., proving that murder is, in fact, immoral).

        • Jamie
          Posted September 10, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

          Oh, I see what you mean. But you don’t believe there are any moral facts… neither do I. Thanks for clearing up my confusion.

    • Vaal
      Posted September 10, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      I’m curious: do you think that there are no facts whatsoever concerning “value?”

      Or facts about what we “ought” to do in any circumstances? E.g., do you think hypothetical/prudential notions of value and prescription can not be factual? I.e. those related to a desire or goal: IF you want the water to boil you OUGHT to heat it to over 100 degrees Celsius, etc).

      ?

      Vaal

      • Gary W
        Posted September 10, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        I’m curious: do you think that there are no facts whatsoever concerning “value?” Or facts about what we “ought” to do in any circumstances?

        Yes. “Values” and “oughts” are a matter of preference, not fact.

        If you disagree, give me some examples of what you believe to be moral facts, and explain how you think you know they are facts (rather than just preferences).

        • Vaal
          Posted September 10, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

          Gary W,

          “Yes. “Values” and “oughts” are a matter of preference, not fact.”

          So you just denied the example I’d given, correct?

          “IF you want the water to boil you OUGHT to heat it to over 100 degrees Celsius, etc)”

          Are you really prepared to say the above statement is not a factual, empirically-supported claim?

          If not…what use is science, or any empirical “knowledge” to our lives?

          If you DO end up saying you accept that claim as true, then you’ve accepted that ought statements can be factual. So, right now your logic seems unresolved.

          Vaal

        • Gary W
          Posted September 10, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

          So you just denied the example I’d given, correct?

          “IF you want the water to boil you OUGHT to heat it to over 100 degrees Celsius, etc)”

          Are you really prepared to say the above statement is not a factual, empirically-supported claim?

          Yes, of course I am. You’re now confusing a method for achieving a goal with a moral prescription. If your goal is to boil water, then in order to achieve that goal it may be necessary, as a matter of empirical fact, to heat the water to 100 degrees. But that doesn’t mean heating the water is a MORAL obligation. It’s not something you “ought” to do. Failure to heat the water is not immoral; it’s just counterproductive to your goal. You still don’t seem to understand the difference between facts and preferences.

          • Vaal
            Posted September 11, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

            Gary W,

            ““IF you want the water to boil you OUGHT to heat it to over 100 degrees Celsius, etc)”

            ME: “Are you really prepared to say the above statement is not a factual, empirically-supported claim?”

            Gary: “Yes, of course I am.”

            So first you explicitly deny that example to be a factual claim.

            But THEN you say:

            “If your goal is to boil water, then in order to achieve that goal it may be necessary, as a matter of empirical fact, to heat the water to 100 degrees.”

            What the???

            First you deny it’s an empirical fact; then you admit it’s an empirical fact! Which is it? (You say “may be” – is it an empirical fact or not? Wouldn’t this e decided by empirically investigating the boiling point of water? Already done!)

            So you “ought” to be consistent here IF you get your point across. ;-)

            “But that doesn’t mean heating the water is a MORAL obligation.”

            I didn’t SAY it was a moral obligation or moral “ought.” I explicitly said I was giving an example of a hypothetical/prudential ought statement.

            I’m not the one getting things mixed up here.

            This is a standard personal goal oriented prescription. IF you want water to boil, THEN you OUGHT to heat it to over 100 degrees Celsius.

            Or: IF you want to avoid becoming sick from pathogens, THEN you ought to cook chicken to 165F internal temperature.

            Are these factual statements about what will fulfill those goals/desires or not?

            Vaal.

            • Jamie
              Posted September 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

              This is very interesting, but it seems to me you ought is entirely superfluous.

              If you want water to boil, set the heat source >100 degrees C. What does your ought add to the logic of the proposition? What does any ought ever add to the logic of any goal oriented prescription?

              • Vaal
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

                Jamie,

                “Ought” is just an expediency – a short form for essentially what you just wrote.

                You could write “You ought to heat the water to 100 C” and it would assume the desire in question.

                Or you could say, “setting the heat source to 100 C will fulfill your desire to boil the water.”

                Or simply the way you phrased it – in which we would understand the connection between a desire and an action that will fulfill that desire.

                “Ought” is just a short form meaning “Is such as to fulfill the desire in question.”
                (For prudential prescriptions).

                The important point is how value arises as the relationship between the existence of a desire (they really do exist) and empirical truths about actions or states of affairs that fulfill the desire. Hence, the objectivity of “ought” statements.

                You can phrase and “ought” statement without the word “ought,” just as long as you get the relationship of desire fulfillment/states of affairs correct.

                And moral statements are those that say essentially: “People generally have many and strong reasons to praise those who do X.”

                Which, again, are empirical, real-world claimss.

                Vaal

              • Jamie
                Posted September 12, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

                Vaal-

                (There doesn’t seem to be a reply link under you post below, so I’m putting my reply here.)

                “The important point is how value arises as the relationship between the existence of a desire (they really do exist) and empirical truths about actions or states of affairs that fulfill the desire.”

                I take your point, and I think it is a very important one.

                On the other hand, I have been thinking about the ‘ought’ in the prescriptive proposition, and I have concluded that it is *not* empty. I think it implies that there may be several alternate ways to solve your problem; the one herein prescribed is somehow preferred over others.

                Consider: “If you want to boil water, you ought to ask your mother to show you how.” “If you want that water to boil, you ought to put a lid on the pot” etc. Obviously the specifications of an ‘ought’ need to fit the facts of the case in hand. (Which I take to be what you are saying above.)

                But anyone making an ‘ought’ statement, it seems to me, is also making a claim, viz. “This particular prescription is ‘better’ (in some undefined sense) then all possible alternate prescriptions, for the particular situation under consideration.” It is not just adequate to fulfill the desire, but preferred for some reason.

            • Gary W
              Posted September 11, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

              First you deny it’s an empirical fact; then you admit it’s an empirical fact! Which is it?

              You might have your answer if you read more carefully. I *affirmed* that it is an empirical fact that it may be necessary to heat water to 100 degrees in order to make it boil. I *denied* that it is an empirical fact that “If you want the water to boil you OUGHT to heat it to over 100 degrees Celsius, etc”. You do realize that those are two completely different statements, right?

              I didn’t SAY it was a moral obligation or moral “ought.” I explicitly said I was giving an example of a hypothetical/prudential ought statement.

              Well, make your mind. You claimed that you’re arguing for “objective morality.” But now you’re saying you’re not using the world “ought” in a moral sense at all. So if your statements such as “if you want the water to boil you OUGHT to heat it to over 100 degrees Celsius” are not supposed to be moral prescriptions, but merely expressions of relationships between means and ends, I have no idea why you think they are relevant to the discussion about the nature of morality at all.

  42. kelskye
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    I really liked this discussion. More of this kind of discussion is needed, I think, because it allows people to see where the differences in positions lie and the reasoning for it.

  43. logicophilosophicus
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    My conviction is that the entities currently known to science – a few dozen particles each subject to one or more of four forces – cannot account for all aspects of the phenomenal world, in particular awareness, and especially awareness of consequences.

    Nevertheless it is logically certain that since (you might say “if”) awareness, value judgments, etc influence events causally, then they are physical. So my own view is that there will be new physics somewhere along the line. (If you are a theist, you need to grasp this: whatever your God is made of, he must be physical in this sense, else he couldn’t interact with the physical world, not now, not at any moment of creation.)

    Moral thought experiments are all very well, but the real world is more informative. It is very clear that the moral beliefs of advanced cultures are very different from those of developing cultures. Darwin noted that in perhaps all very primitive societies it is regarded as morally good to kill a stranger. Today we don’t think that. But we have the same brain and the same instincts – only the most self-deluding would claim that they never feel the xenophobic instinct. And that is the point: morality is about “ought” INSTEAD OF “want”, and is not to be explained away as some more indirect “want”. We transcend our biological nature.

    No one here has mentioned the key moral concept/perception of “duty”, but in an interesting way everyone here has – sometimes in the strongest terms – demonstrated a commitment to a higher ideal, philosophical truth. Or I’d like to think so. On the other hand, you might just say that your aversion to Fundamentalist claims of moral authority is just the old xenophobic tribalism of that primitive phenotype, just neurons, just genes…

    Looking around the real moral landscape, we find people doing extraordinarily non-adaptive things which we, nevertheless, greatly admire. If you’ve read my examples before, pardon the repetition: Spinoza facing down a potentially murderous mob with moral arguments, Beethoven struggling to compose despite ever more profound deafness, van Gogh starving in a garret, Galileo or more generally, anyone risking all for the sake of artistic or intellectual integrity, Galileo before the Inquisition, Bruno burning at the stake…

    Such a concept of uncomfortable duty is ancient. Personally I have always felt it – not the same thing as being able to live up to it! – and for years I carried a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the perfect Stoic, in my pocket: perfect because, as the absolute dictator of the greatest empire the world had known, with all pleasures, excesses and vices temptingly available, he lived an austere and moral life and always allowed for the imperfections of others.

    • Posted September 10, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      My conviction is that the entities currently known to science – a few dozen particles each subject to one or more of four forces – cannot account for all aspects of the phenomenal world, in particular awareness, and especially awareness of consequences.

      Of course, one needs more than a simple listing of ingredients to explain or do anything. You can pour some water into a bowl full of flour, but it’ll take a bit more than just that to make bread.

      Just as there’s “something more” to the computer you’re reading this on than some silicon — namely, the software that’s running on the hardware — there’s “something more” to the human nervous system than a bunch of neurons. That “something more” is our consciousness, and is best understood as the software running on the hardware.

      But that doesn’t mean that there’s some sort of mystery consciousness field or particle or force or whatever, any more than there’s anything mysterious about the code running on your computer.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted September 10, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        “best understood”

        NOT understood. Quite apart from will, value judgment and awareness, there is always the problem of qualia.

        • Posted September 10, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          The concept of “qualia” has become incoherent.

          We’re able to decipher measurements of brain signals sufficiently enough to construct a recognizable computer image of what the subject sees. That’s plenty to tell us that sensation is a computational function of the brain and that no abstract Platonic ideals are involved.

          We also know enough that, yes, no two people perceive the world in exactly the same way; and, no, the differences aren’t radical. Assuming no color blindness or other sensory abnormalities, the same patterns of neurons fire in your head when you see the color red as in anybody else’s head (within very minor individual variations around a mean).

          Cheers,

          b&

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted September 10, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

            That account doesn’t explain qualia. The coded image in the brain is no more significant than the image on the retina or the computer screen; neither is the verbal accpunt of experience given by a human observer. Qualia have a “feel” which is not present in any of those.

            However, the main point was that consciousness is not understood. That is universally agreed.

            • Posted September 10, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

              The feelings are themselves encoded in the brain, and we again can be certain that the feelings are, as one would expect, similarly encoded. It’s the only way that mood-altering drugs would alter different people’s moods in similar manners.

              And it’s a lie that “consciousness is not understood.” Consciousness is, of course, not fully understood, but we not only know a great deal about it, we know enough of the broad outlines to know that it’s an emergent phenomenon of our brains, and that you don’t need to resort to anything other than the real-world hardware and software of our brains to explain consciousness.

              b&

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 1:08 am | Permalink

                @ BG

                “…it’s a lie that ‘consciousness is not understood’…”

                Fighting talk, no less.

                I’ve recently reread Susan Blackmore’s “Conversations on Consciousness”. There are 20 conversations with prominent theorists, and while there are a few pairs who agree, there are certainly a dozen mutually contradictory answers to the question: “What is consciousness?” A large part of the disagreement is due to the self-imposed restriction that only third person accounts (using Dennett’s terminology) are accepted by many (not all – David Chalmers, for example, is among the 20). Qualia are “subjective” in the sense that my qualia are only available to me. (It’s never seemed to me to be a vast leap of faith to assume that other observers’ qualia are like mine – Einstein built a universe on the premise that no observer is special.) So Dennett and others reject introspection – i.e. examination of consciousness – as a means of studying consciousness.

                Anyway, the outcome is a dozen discordant voices, a situation exactly described in Buddhism and Jainism in the well known parable of the blind men and the elephant. If you only look at neurons, you’ll only see neurons. If you only look at quantum collapse, you’ll only see quantum collapse. If you only look at behaviour, you’ll only see behaviour. (One of the worst books I ever read: “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”.)

                Not, after all, a lie.

            • Vaal
              Posted September 10, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

              I agree Ben!

              I don’t go in for the “mysterians” who always portray consciousness as utter mystery. As you point out, we may not “fully understand” consciousness, but certainly we have made great strides in understanding the physiognomy and cognitive processes of our brains and thinking, enough that very, very few duelists are left who study the brain/mind.

              I find that mysterians (and their “qualis”) seem to rely on a sort of unjustified, impossible criteria that is almost designed to forever be out of reach, such that as much data as we may accrue, it will never be enough for them. It’s like waiting for someone to finally get enough physical data to establish that “emotions are purple” or “human rights are yellow.”

              Mysterians constantly bring up the “sure we can talk about all the physical processes of the brains, but it doesn’t explain our subjectivity, that it FEELS like something to feel pain, sorrow, to be us.

              Well, the question is, why WOULDN’T it be “like” something to be us, given the complexity of our neurology and cognition?
              We have an extremely complex, nuanced, variegated cognitive apparatus that combines
              observational, computational, and feeling/emotional feedback mechanisms. How could it NOT “feel” like something to be us, in our internal experience? Consciousness must feel like something; this is what it feels like.

              When we ask, “ok, if it doesn’t follow from our design that we would have consciousness or subjectivity, give me an example of something just like us physically, but wouldn’t have consciousness or subjectivity.”

              We get responses like “philosophical zombies.” But I’m with people like Dennett in that these examples are utterly unpersuasive – in that while you can SAY the words there is a being like us with no self-consciousness, you can’t really give an argument as to WHY it would not have self-consciousness, like us. Hence they do not act as counterexamples to our having consciousness.

              Vaal

              • Vaal
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

                ugh, should be: “(and their “qualia”)”

              • Gary W
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

                But I’m with people like Dennett in that these examples are utterly unpersuasive – in that while you can SAY the words there is a being like us with no self-consciousness, you can’t really give an argument as to WHY it would not have self-consciousness, like us

                On the contrary, you have it exactly backwards. “Why not?” isn’t a serious answer to the question “Why are we conscious?” any more than it is to the question of why human beings have any other trait. Why did we evolve the trait of consciousness? Is it adaptive? Is it a byproduct? We simply don’t know.

              • Vaal
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

                On the contrary, you have it exactly backwards. “Why not?” isn’t a serious answer to the question “Why are we conscious?”

                Yes it is a serious reply, as you are forgetting the context of the question.
                GIVEN our the features of our cognitive system – neurological systems for receiving input about the world, for complex processing of that input, producing possible models of our experience, rationalizing which models likely fit best, the need to predict our environment including the thought processes of other beings like us, higher order processing overseeing lower order, pain receptors, emotion centers etc. – WHY WOULDN’T such a system as us feel like something to be hurt, or to be conscious etc?

                “Why did we evolve the trait of consciousness? Is it adaptive? Is it a byproduct? We simply don’t know.”

                That’s a different question. That’s asking “how did we get this way?” Whereas the issue I was speaking to was “Given we ARE this way, there doesn’t seem anything in principle mysterious about our having subjectivity and consciousness.”

                It’s like asking “Does fire have the property of being useful for cooking?”
                The answer depends on the property that we observe fire to have – independent of the story of how we got it (from a God, from a lighting strike, from a gas stove…)

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted September 10, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

                GIVEN our the features of our cognitive system – neurological systems for receiving input about the world, for complex processing of that input, producing possible models of our experience, rationalizing which models likely fit best, the need to predict our environment including the thought processes of other beings like us, higher order processing overseeing lower order, pain receptors, emotion centers etc. – WHY WOULDN’T such a system as us feel like something to be hurt, or to be conscious etc?

                Because there’s no evidence that being conscious is adaptive. There’s no evidence that it helps us to survive. So why are we conscious? Why aren’t we just unconscious information processing machines, like a computer-controlled robot? Your question is like asking “Why WOULDN’T IBM’s Watson computer system be conscious?”

                That’s a different question. That’s asking “how did we get this way?”

                No it’s not. I’m not asking HOW consciousness arose. I’m asking WHY it arose. WHY are we conscious? Do you have an answer? “Why not?” is not a serious answer at all, any more than it’s a serious answer to the question of why human beings have any of our other traits.

              • Posted September 11, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

                I’m not asking HOW consciousness arose. I’m asking WHY it arose. WHY are we conscious?

                If you’re seriously asking that question, then you’ve spectacularly missed the whole point of the Theory of Evolution by Random Mutation and Natural Selection.

                There is no “why.”

                Period. Full stop, end of story, for anything that happens in Evolution or any other process not driven by an intelligence.

                Every trait in every species initially arises through random mutation. (There is one particularly notable caveat, for horizontal gene transfer, but HGT almost exclusively operates on microbes. There is also a great deal of plasticity in most modern genomes, allowing genetic drift to give the appearance of driving mutations, but that’s really just a force multiplier — a small mutation has cascading effects on the already-there genetic material.)

                The question isn’t the origins of a trait; that’s always a given: random mutation (etc.).

                The relevant question, therefore, is why any particular trait survives.

                And that answer is also simple: the reproductive harm of the trait, if any, does not outweigh the reproductive benefits, if any, of the trait.

                It may be that consciousness itself provides some as-yet-unexplained reproductive advantage, and there are good reasons to think that that’s exactly the case — that consciousness is driven by sexual selection, and our big brains are our equivalent of a peacock’s tail.

                It may be that consciousness is an inevitable byproduct of some other trait, such as analytic ability. Or, it may be a byproduct of the particular evolutionary pathway that arose giving us, e.g., our cognitive abilities. If either is the case, then consciousness could be a liability, but the liability isn’t outweighed by the advantages offered by the trait it’s attached to. Or, it could be advantageous, a fortuitous byproduct of the underlying trait.

                Or it may be that consciousness is an entirely isolated phenomenon that just came about randomly on its own, and it doesn’t have sufficient downsides for it to have yet randomly drifted back out of the gene pool.

                But, again, in no case is there a “why” answer to the origins of consciousness — or to an elephant’s trunk or a giraffe’s neck or a flower’s petals or any other product of natural selection.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

                There is no “why.”

                Of course there is. You just described one “why” yourself : adaptation. Why do human beings have certain traits? Because those traits are adaptive. Because they enhance our reproductive fitness.

                It’s hard to see how consciousness enhances reproductive fitness. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why we would not be just as reproductively successful if we were simply unconscious information-processing machines, like IBM’s Watson. Maybe consciousness is a byproduct of the evolution of some useful trait. But we don’t know that either. We simply don’t have a good explanation for why we are conscious. It’s a mystery.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

                It may be that consciousness itself provides some as-yet-unexplained reproductive advantage, and there are good reasons to think that that’s exactly the case — that consciousness is driven by sexual selection, and our big brains are our equivalent of a peacock’s tail.

                This doesn’t make sense. How would a conscious being have a reproductive advantage through sexual selection (or any other mechanism) over an unconscious being that looked and acted identically? It would not. So how could consciousness itself be adaptive?

                Again, perhaps consciousness is somehow an inevitable byproduct when brains reach a certain level of complexity or acquire a certain type of structure or somesuch. But we don’t know that. And I don’t think we have any evidence for it.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

                This doesn’t make sense. How would a conscious being have a reproductive advantage through sexual selection (or any other mechanism) over an unconscious being that looked and acted identically? It would not. So how could consciousness itself be adaptive?

                This argument assumes an unconscious being could act identically to a conscious being. We don’t know that is true.

              • Posted September 12, 2012 at 7:14 am | Permalink

                How would a conscious being have a reproductive advantage through sexual selection (or any other mechanism) over an unconscious being that looked and acted identically?

                Congratulations. You’ve just spectacularly missed the whole point of the Turing Test.

                And, for the sake of argument, I’ll even take sexual selection off the table — which still leaves all the other potential reasons for this or any other trait to persist.

                Reasons which you conveniently ignored.

                I can already tell that, as is usual with you, this is going nowhere, so I’ll cut the discussion off at this point.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

                This argument assumes an unconscious being could act identically to a conscious being. We don’t know that is true.

                What reason is there to believe it isn’t true? What evidece is there that consciousness can affect the behavior of matter?

              • Gary W
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

                Congratulations. You’ve just spectacularly missed the whole point of the Turing Test.

                I asked you how you think consciousness itself could provide a reproductive advantage. Do you have an answer or don’t you?

              • Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

                I asked you how you think consciousness itself could provide a reproductive advantage. Do you have an answer or don’t you?

                Multiple answers, all of which save sexual selection (which was an incidental toss-off) you ignored.

                http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/09/09/baggini-vs-krauss-on-science-philosophy-and-morality/#comment-281504

                b&

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 12:11 am | Permalink

                What evidece is there that consciousness can affect the behavior of matter?

                I don’t have evidence, but I have my own experience, observations, and reflections which may suggest a reason consciousness is adaptive.

                A major strength of our intelligence is its flexibility, it’s plasticity; the brain is a self-modifying machine that can add states in the future that are unreachable now. In other words, it learns. Unconscious machines can learn, but our brain seems to be able to learn how to learn; not only can it increase what it knows, it can modify the goals that guide its learning.

                It’s obvious why this flexibility is adaptive. It has enabled us to invent new strategies to adapt to changing environments, changing food supplies, to develop tools, to develop language.

                I think consciousness may be key in accomplishing that level of flexibility in an efficient manner. Our unconscious processes seem to be fast hard wired functions, such as reflexes, processing sensory input, regulating the heart beat and other organs and glands, and probably creating what one might call the framework or infrastructure for conscious symbolic reasoning and memory access and storage.

                These systems seem fairly stable or static, not learned but rather programmed by genes. What we learn, such as our native language and all the things we understand in terms of that language or in terms of associative symbols, is learned for the most part by the conscious mind with support naturally from unconscious processes.

                The slow thinking symbolic deliberation and reasoning of our conscious mind seems to play a central role in all learning.

                I guess the central conjecture here is not that conscious processing can’t be reproduced or mimicked with unconscious machines, but that conscious machines can do it much more efficiently, using an infinitely flexible core set of functions, so that human capabilities were much more likely to evolve conscious than unconscious, which involves more brittle hard wired algorithms.

                I’m totally shooting from the hip here, but I think there is some plausibility, and it provides some motivation for why consciousness is adaptive.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted September 10, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

            That kills off solipsism and the zombies. What on earth will people talk about when they’re stoned? :)

          • Gary W
            Posted September 10, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

            We’re able to decipher measurements of brain signals sufficiently enough to construct a recognizable computer image of what the subject sees. That’s plenty to tell us that sensation is a computational function of the brain and that no abstract Platonic ideals are involved.

            No, it merely demonstrates a correlation between patterns of light and brain activity. In other words, it tells us something about the physical processes involved in vision. It doesn’t tell us anything about how physical processes somehow give rise to the subjective experience of seeing something. That is still a complete mystery.

            • Posted September 10, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

              It doesn’t tell us anything about how physical processes somehow give rise to the subjective experience of seeing something. That is still a complete mystery.

              When the objective measurements map directly to an objectively-observed reproduction in the physical construct already known to be where perception occurs, I’d say it’s disingenuous in the extreme to insist that it’s a “complete mystery,” especially when it’s sufficient in its entirety to explain the phenomenon of subjectivity.

              I mean, when we see a cat, there is an image of a cat encoded in our brains. How is that image of a cat encoded in our brains not our actual subjective experience of seeing the cat? What on Earth could possibly make you think we need to look any further?

              Unless, of course, you’ve somehow bought into all that “brains as TV transceivers for soulish phantasms” bullshit. If that’s the case, I ain’t got nuttin’ for ya.

              The next step, of course, will come in the form of directly manipulating that image formed in the brain, but we’re a loooooong way from doing so. If your hypothesis is right, then there will be no correlation between the modifications and our subjective perception. And, in that case, I’ll eat my hat. But, Shirley, you don’t really expect that to be the case?

              b&

              • Posted September 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

                I mean, when we see a cat, there is an image of a cat encoded in our brains. How is that image of a cat encoded in our brains not our actual subjective experience of seeing the cat?

                In the case of blindsight, the encoded image and the subjective experience are separate. You in fact have the former without the latter. Of course, this is due to a certain lesion in the brain, so it is true that the brain activity of a person with the subjective experience of sight is different from the brain activity of a person without the experience of sight whose brain still encodes images.

                Which makes your point – consciousness arises from brain processes.

                Not to mention the fact that we can turn consciousness off with general anaesthesia. Come on, people.

            • Gary W
              Posted September 10, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

              When the objective measurements map directly to an objectively-observed reproduction in the physical construct already known to be where perception occurs, I’d say it’s disingenuous in the extreme to insist that it’s a “complete mystery,”

              What I described as a “complete mystery” is the means by which physical processes give rise to subjective experience. That is most definitely a complete mystery. We don’t have any idea how it works. Noting correlations between different kinds of physical process is simply irrelevant to this question. It doesn’t tell us anything whatsoever about how physical processes somehow produce subjective experience.

              I mean, when we see a cat, there is an image of a cat encoded in our brains. How is that image of a cat encoded in our brains not our actual subjective experience of seeing the cat?

              Because we can observe physical patterns in the brain using the methods of science. We cannot observe subjective experiences. They are fundamentally different kinds of phenomena.

              • Posted September 11, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

                When there is a perfect one-to-one map between the mechanisms of cognition and the subjective experience, any other explanation than, “that’s it,” amount to a violation of the conservation of energy.

                We don’t have the perfect map yet, but we do have a pretty decent map with broad outlines and a good amount of detail. And there aren’t any soul-shaped holes on the map where a non-material subjectivity could possibly be found.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

                When there is a perfect one-to-one map between the mechanisms of cognition and the subjective experience, any other explanation than, “that’s it,” amount to a violation of the conservation of energy

                No, simply noting that subjective experiences are correlated with physical states in the brain tells us precisely nothing about how the states give rise to the experiences, or what else might be involved in producing the experiences. You can’t explain subjective experience by pretending it’s the same thing as a physical state.

              • Posted September 11, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

                It seems like Ben is trying to rebut a dualistic view of the mind, whereas Gary isn’t espousing such a view, but simply saying that we don’t know how the brain produces subjective experiences.

                First off, I think the question “how does the brain produce subjective experiences” is a terrible one, since we don’t actually know what subjective experiences *are*. If you ask a question like “How did the thief murder this man?”, at least you know what it means for one person to murder another. You started off with a living human, who was made to be no longer living through relatively direct, purposeful causes. Asking “how did this happen” makes sense. With qualia, we can’t even say what they are. It is very much a “I know it when I see it” phenomenon, and that really isn’t a suitable working definition to ask further from.

                To illustrate the problem, consider how we could falsify whether a person/robot/zombie/whatever is having a subjective experience or not. Let’s say that the creature can answer questions. We ask it if it sees anything, and it responds “Yes.” Okay, well we could program a robot to do give that kind of answer. We can also program a robot to take in visual information and use it to navigate its surroundings. So what would falsify the robot’s claim that it is “experiencing” the visual world? What does “experience” (as a verb) even mean? We can’t ask how this state of affairs came about in humans when we haven’t even decided what this state of affairs *is.*

                I also feel like it needs to be mentioned that consciousness isn’t an off-or-on thing. It isn’t just black or white, consciousness or no consciousness. Consciousness has parts to it (even if we don’t know what they are), and we no doubt share those parts with many of our animal cousins. So it’s not like ancient apes were robots and then one day a mutation arose and the lineage gained “subjective experiences” all at once. Animals have, I think, been “experiencing” things for a while, and we’ve added more and more meta-cognition to that as humans have evolved.

                Lastly, as far as the “how” of consciousness is concerned, I feel like scientists have gleaned a bit more insight into the matter than Gary lets on. I mentioned blindsight above, which is a condition in which patients have some partial vision without any conscious experience of it. These patients have lesions in their visual cortices which render them blind. However, humans possess an ancient reptilian (sauropsidian?) visual processing system which returns only coarse visual information, and is not connected to whatever in the brain “produces” “consciousness” (the frontal lobes are probably instrumental in this). As a result, patients will swear to you that they are blind (and they are, as far as they know), but if you hold a cane out to them with the handle in various orientations and tell them to grab it, they will orient their hand correctly to grab the cane as if they could see it.

                Psychosomatic blindness is another interesting sight-related example, in which patients who have completely healthy retinas and visual cortices will nevertheless report that they are blind (they have no subjective experience of seeing), but this is because the information is being “blocked” from reaching consciousness. (The condition can occur when someone has witnessed an atrocity.)

                Another example is when you strap a camera to a person’s head, and the output from the camera goes to tiny electrodes which are taped to the person’s tongue. You blindfold the person, and try to get them to, say, catch a ball rolling across the table by using the tingling on their tongue to locate it. People can become good at this, but the interesting part is that after a while, they report that they are in some sense *seeing* the ball. They don’t say they are using haptic sensations on their tongue to figure out where the ball is, but rather they begin to experience this visual information *as sight.* I don’t know how much this tells us about the “how” of consciousness, but at least it seems that when our brains process information – from any sense – as visual, the brain creates an experience that matches.

                The future of neuroscience is exciting.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

                It seems like Ben is trying to rebut a dualistic view of the mind, whereas Gary isn’t espousing such a view, but simply saying that we don’t know how the brain produces subjective experiences

                Ben Goren has a habit of (tediously, didactically, long-windedly) rebutting positions that no one has taken.

                So what would falsify the robot’s claim that it is “experiencing” the visual world?

                Good question. You ask it but don’t offer an answer. The difficulty of providing a satisyfing answer is another illustration of the fundamentally mysterious nature of consciousness.

                I don’t know how much this tells us about the “how” of consciousness, but at least it seems that when our brains process information – from any sense – as visual, the brain creates an experience that matches.

                I don’t think it tells us anything about how consciousness arises from physical processes. It seems pretty clear that they are *correlated*. We understand those correlations well enough to be able to do a crude kind of mind-reading, given the appropriate brain-scanning technology. But the correlations simply don’t address the question I’m asking. We don’t even know if consciousness requires a particular type of material or whether it could could arise merely given certain kinds of structures and signals.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

                “Ben Goren has a habit of (tediously, didactically, long-windedly) rebutting positions that no one has taken.”

                i get the distinct impression at times that he has c&p blocks of text from pre-written material pertaining to subjects discussed here, but has then not made the effort to revise it appropriately. be that as it may, i am enjoying this discussion a great deal.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted September 11, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

                You can’t explain subjective experience by pretending it’s the same thing as a physical state.

                Not a physical state, but a complex network of transitions between physical states perhaps.

                If you are thinking of physical states correlating with something else that is conscious, this is effectively dualism. At some point we have to understand subjective experience as identical to physical states, or more likely rapidly transitioning networks of physical states.

                At one time it might have made perfect sense to say you can’t explain the heartbeat as a sequence of physical states, or healing skin or bone as just physical states. How birds stayed aloft in the empty sky seemed like magic, and static electricity and magnetism must have appeared to be supernatural.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

                Not a physical state, but a complex network of transitions between physical states perhaps.

                You can’t explain it as that either.

                If you are thinking of physical states correlating with something else that is conscious, this is effectively dualism. At some point we have to understand subjective experience as identical to physical states, or more likely rapidly transitioning networks of physical states.

                Physical states and transitions can be observed. As far as we can tell, consciousness cannot. It can only be experienced by the entity that is conscious. So how can consciousness be “identical” to physical states or transitions?

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

                So how can consciousness be “identical” to physical states or transitions?

                This is a very good question I wish I could answer. When you say that consciousness can’t be observed, I’m not sure that’s true. Not today, but someday maybe it can be. It would depend on what is meant by ‘observe’. Maybe you cant bounce photons off it, but there should be other ways to observe it. By saying it can’t be observed, and that it can’t be identical to a complex network of rapidly transitioning states, it sounds like you are saying it is non-physical, which means you are proposing some form of dualism. Are you a dualist? If not how do you avoid admitting consciousness must be a physical process?

                I realize how easy it is to regard consciousness as something mysterious, magical, and somehow ethereal, but if we really believe that it evolved via genetic experimentation from protein based cells, it seems to me we will eventually discover that self-awareness of a physical system is not as complicated and mysterious as it now seems. Obviously our brain is incredibly complex, but the trick of consciousness itself may not be one of its most complex features, and how it works could turn out to be less spectacular than we are currently inclined to expect. Someday people will probably look back and kick themselves for not figuring it out sooner.

    • Gary W
      Posted September 10, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      That “something more” is our consciousness, and is best understood as the software running on the hardware.

      I don’t think we have anything close to a good understanding of consciousness.

  44. Posted September 10, 2012 at 3:53 am | Permalink

    Never mind ought from is, you can’t get is. Effects are time-variable and incalculable. This is not going to change without a time machine to check the future is. It doesn’t matter.

    • Posted September 10, 2012 at 4:08 am | Permalink

      As for the ought, all ethics is fabricated. Moral philosophers disagree as conclusions vary with their premises, and all ethical axioms are arbitrary. As for the cruciphile, well his is fixed for him. He must be pro- genocide, pro- torture, pro- human sacrifice. These are the central tenets of Christianity.

      • Vaal
        Posted September 10, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

        “and all ethical axioms are arbitrary.”

        Are you sure?

        How do you justify this claim? Given every argument you make will depend on some assumption or other, how do you discern between an “arbitrary” axiom and a non-arbitrary one?

        I wonder if we’ll see some special pleading here.

        I disagree, myself. For instance, any value theory, especially moral realist theories, are beholden to facts about the universe and facts that we observe about what humans seem to value, so there are constraints on any such theory. The enterprise is then one of uncovering the axiomatic necessities or assumptions that makes sense of value. If your axiom isn’t consistent with the facts, then the theory fails. Hence it’s claims about axioms need not be merely arbitrary.

        For

        • Vaal
          Posted September 10, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

          (PS. Some will argue that all axioms are arbitrary – in the sense they are assumed in the very process you may want to use to justify them, and therefore can’t be “justified” by some system in place before them. But if that’s the case, then it’s special pleading to single out ethical theories over all our other theories for having arbitrary axioms).

          Vaal

          • Posted September 11, 2012 at 2:01 am | Permalink

            More on topic than special pleading.

            • Posted September 11, 2012 at 2:11 am | Permalink

              Intended as emphasis rather than tautology. Poor style.

  45. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    The original thread was quite all right, even if I don’t agree with Baggini’s position. But plastering “utilitarism” as moral theory and “philosophy” as method-of-the-gaps over it was painful.

    “Utilitarism” is an idea in search for an application, as moral behaviors are innate and/or culturally endowed. Cultural constraints on morality are not settled by moral theory.

    And the whole point of Baggini’s retreat and Krauss advance was that many or most philosophical questions were never worth asking in the first place, and they don’t inform as much as obscure the others where they propose inevitably erroneous answers to useful questions.

    Better to drop the dross.

    • Vaal
      Posted September 10, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      Torbjörn Larsson,

      Your post at least appears to be a diss on philosophy, which puts you at risk of doing it badly. Where you deny it’s worth, but since it’s to some degree unavoidable, you end up making philosophical assumptions anyway…just without examining them.


      most philosophical questions were never worth asking in the first place, and they don’t inform as much as obscure the others where they propose inevitably erroneous answers to useful questions.”

      Don’t you think one of the most common ways we move into error occurs when we start with poor, erroneous, or poorly justified assumptions?

      Much of philosophy revolves around uncovering our assumptions, and examining them. How can this not be a good thing?
      I would be willing to bet you think, like most of us, that it’s a good thing to re-evaluate assumptions. For instance, aren’t we atheists always pointing out that
      theists aren’t good at getting at truth, or delivering knowledge, due to their ass-backward assumptions? For instance, they assume the bible is divine, assume complexity requires a designer, assume God must be good, assume their personal experience as valid justification for truth claims about Jesus…etc?

      The impression you leave is that, presuming you agree poor assumptions underlie much poor reasoning and error, you would be comfortable only that some others ought to be doing this…but not yourself? Or some other portion of humanity? After all, it would be philosophical to look at the assumptions that underlay any claim you make.
      And your dismissal above of the worth of philosophical questions is, itself, philosophical (presuming you have any justification for it).

      Vaal

  46. Jamie
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    This thread is getting old, so I don’t know if many people will see this, but I want to take a stab at outlining a possible materialist science of morality, taking cues from Marvin Harris’ “Cultural Materialism” (1979).

    Harris outlines a research strategy for a coherent scientific materialist anthropology in his book that leans heavily on the distinction between behavior and mental events and the distinction between etic and emic descriptions. Behavior is roughly what is observable directly in terms of bodies moving and acting in time and space, while mental events are roughly the contents of people’s thoughts and feelings. Etic descriptions are, again very roughly, descriptions made in terms of (using the categories etc of) the observer while emic descriptions are those made in terms of the subjects. This is not the same as objective and subjective descriptions as both etic and emic descriptions may be either objective or subjective.

    So in terms of these distinctions, there is an etic behavioral component, and etic mental component, and emic behavioral component and an emic mental component to every complete description of a cultural phenomena. In terms of a possible science of morals, I see, as a first approximation:

    1) the emic mental component—corresponding, roughly, to what people say they believe about right and wrong, what their feelings and thoughts are as they report them when confronted with particular moral dilemmas, or what they report believing about whether specific acts are moral or not. (This is basically the domain of psychology and anthropology and perhaps introspective philosophy.)

    2) the etic mental component would be what neuroscience tells us is actually going on in peoples heads, physiologically, when they make their emic statements (e.g. the work of Joshua Greene etc, and whatever is explicated going forward in the brain sciences about how brains, cognition and emotion actually work—specifically focused on explicating the circuitry of ‘moral intuition’).

    3) the emic behavioral component would be, basically, how people describe their own behavior. (Psychology and anthropology.)

    4) the etic behavioral—what people actually do, considering all behavior that has a moral aspect—properly operationalized behavioral science and anthropology.

    Then I would add a fifth component, because each of the above could be construed as investigating only the morality of individuals; there needs to be a recognition that morality is a social phenomena, so sociology would apply to questions of how each of the above types of description varies in group conditions versus isolated individuals—the entire literature on social norms (gender norms, class norms etc) probably applies here.

    I am not deliberately excluding philosophy. I just don’t know enough about philosophy to know if it has a contribution to make.

    This is just a rough schematic, obviously, that simply reproduces a piece of Harris’ thought. Embedded in a context that included a description of how the various components evolved and whether or how they were/are adaptive along with a clear description of what are the genetic and what are the environmental causes of each and how each affects individuals and society at large, I believe that such a program would tell us everything knowable about morality. But I’m eager to be corrected if I’m wrong.

    To critics who say, “but that doesn’t tell me what I ought to do!” I can only reply, no, it doesn’t. I don’t think there is such an ought, or that there can be any knowledge of such an ought, any more than there is a way you ought to feel when you look at the stars or a meaning you ought to ascribe to a frozen waterfall… asking for such an ought, it seems to me is just another way of asking for meaning. There is a social convention, and that can be described, but you have to decide if you accept that or not. Still, knowing all I’ve outlined about your own thoughts, emotions and behaviors, where they come from and how they are perceived by independent observers *ought* to be somewhat useful to you. :-)

  47. Posted September 10, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    And for those of you who say that “is” doesn’t produce “ought,” I’d like to ask you this: “well, how do we determine ‘oughts’”? They don’t come from thin air, and they don’t come from free will. They come from human judgment, which is a result of our genes and our environments. Why is that not, at least in principle, susceptible to scientific investigation?

    Certainly Kant thought that to subject morality to empirical means was always to fall into the trap of “morals of the moment”. If everyone you knew suddenly decided that cannibalism was moral, does that make it so?

    He thought he had the solution with his categorical imperative–a purely logical way of determining the rules for what was moral and what was not.

    Now, I don’t agree with the categorical imperative, but it is clear that the attempt has been made to subject the question of morals to a purely rational inquiry independent of empirical fact. Is there a way to show that such efforts are doomed to fail? Or could there exist such a logical way to determine morality precisely? It seems like any empirical approach to morality cannot achieve such a task, it may be a logical impossibility to build a perfect morality, but unlike say The Halting Problem, no such proof of impossibility currently exists to my knowledge.

  48. Benjamin Carter
    Posted September 15, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I can’t help but feel that the scientific approach to morals is being confused with utilitarianism — which is itself subject to philosophical inquiry. Even the word ‘harm’ is accepted and assumed in science, as there is no way to quantify its definition. It’s a postulate, like the spatial point in geometry. We take it as a given. Science cannot answer that question, nor is it even suppose to. Besides, I find the whole idea of consequetionalism — the idea that the consequences of an action determine its morality — to be rather loathesome. Science can have no account of deontological ethics, and so the scientist would be forced to say that it’s not an ethics at all. This just seems patently absurd. Philosophy should always remain indebted to science, constantly adapting to the information and interpretation it provides, as facts are facts. But there are no facts about ethics, and even the claim “morality should be determined by the consequences of its actions’ is not a scientifically testable claim, it is itself a paradigm that is merely accepted. And no philosopher merely ‘accepts’ something, no matter how obvious it seems to the layman.

  49. petp
    Posted September 20, 2012 at 4:40 am | Permalink

    “As for ethics, I think in principle it might be best to jettison completely our notions of morality, and simply appeal to consequences of behavior and how we regard them. That, after all, is the ineluctable conclusion reached if one is an incompatibilist like myself who doesn’t believe in free will.”

    That is more or less the point of view of B.F. Skinner, whom I think is right. He argues that the more we understand the functioning of the brain, the less room there will be for will until there is nothing at all. One of your commentators, Roo, whose only understanding of Skinner is “Skinner Boxes”, has obviously no idea about Skinner. He should at least read him and consult the numerous videos of him on YT.

  50. Posted September 27, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Here is a nice article on the new mega-science and musing about religion:

    “Encounters With the God Particle

    The Higgs boson, the pope, and the curious interaction between organized religion and big science”

    http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/112798/encounters-with-the-god-particle?all=1


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