Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dialouge With An Atheist Friend Over Same Harri's Assertions about Science and Ethics

Science doing ehtics--think no evil

On my message boards a friend atheist named Qunauntum Troll brings my attention to this lecture by Sam Harris in which he tries to show that science can supposedly answer moral questions. To cut through a lot of preliminary stuff, I argue that right out of the shoot in the first few things he says Harris makes every mistake that I accuse atheists of making when they try to argue for biological ethics. Actually two people brought up the same argument. The other one was Quantum Troll. He used the U tube version of the same lecture, here's what I said to him.

Quantum Troll is a friend  and he's an atheist and one of the brightest people I know. We always have good dialogues and it's always challenging to spar with him.


He (Harris) makes every single mistake in logic and promotes every fallacy one after another that I have aid reductionists do starting with the reduction (his own words!) of value to "facts." Values cannot be facts. you can't reduce a value to a fact. that's a fact. you can't do it because it's not the meaning of the word. it's not in the meaning of hte word for it be a fact. that's like saying reducing matters of taste to facts.

Before he does that the first thin he does is to reduce all of ethics to consequentialism. The first thing he says is that values are based upon harm. So he set's up the notion what makes something good, O the outcome determines good, (screw duty, screw obligation, screw rules) and then with outcome what matters is harm. So screw higher ideas. screw self sacrifice screw enduring a harm in order to keep a greater obligation. So I should ditched my parents at their fist sign of trouble.

Then he asserts that the connection between science's ability to tell us what is harmful and that plugs science in as a moral originator. But he's already made so many major fallacies before he could do that or get that to point that his own scheme is already invalid.

He himself uses the term "reduce" he says 'reduce value to facts.' So he's aware that he's just chucking the data right and left.

Morality does not reduce to outcome
values are not facts and can't be reduced to facts
Meta-ethical theory is not only teleological
lack of harm is not the only value.

Does he answer Hume's fork/ no all he does is make the blunder Hume was warning us about and assert that it doesn't matter because that's part of the data he's hidden.

he's made every blunder I've warned about before he even get's cooking.

QuantumTroll wrote:

Meta, give us all a break, will you?

Does Sam Harris ever say that science provides the absolute standard for what is good and what is bad? No.
Does he say that we can look to science in all practical questions of ethics and morality? No.

First, stop saying "give me a break" when I point out obvious classic mistakes. there is not an ethics professor in this world who would not say what I said up front.

that's not even an issue. it's the same as with theology. atheists pontificate about how stupid theology and they never read it. have you ever taken an ethics class? If you don't know what ethical thinking is how can you know if science can do it?
Quantum Troll
What does he do, then?

He does assume a consequentialist ethics. Harm, pain, and suffering are taken to be bad, joy and well-being are taken to be good. Regardless of your specific beliefs and philosophy regarding ethics and morality, you're probably not going to disagree very much with these assumptions. It doesn't matter where they come from, what matters is that 99.99999% of people will agree that suffering is bad and well-being is good.

Yea I do [disagree very much] and it's a big a deal. It's a major deal in ethical theory. what hes' doing is just a classic mistake. that's on a par with a fundie saying that evolution is just a theory becuase they've heard of scientist saying "evolutionary theory." Same level of ignorance.

Look it's circular. To show that scinece does ethical thinking you have to show how you would select values. But he start from the assumptions these values are accepted a prori. If that's the case then its' pointless to say that science can do any thing about them because they are a priori givens anyway we don't need any kind of special theorizing to understand them.

But the fact of it is that does not do anything in the realm of meta ethics (the field where we study what makes good good, bad bad?).
Quantum Troll
Then he says that science can help determine the relative goodness of complex and difficult questions, and it will likely become better at doing so in the future. In other words, science is a tool that can and should be employed in determining moral questions. Today, it is underutilized in this function because people like you refuse to admit that moral questions can (sometimes, maybe often) be framed as questions of fact.

But it can't be such a tool because he doesn't' understand the basic issues and he's every major blunder in just setting up his topic. All he really says is "screw 2000 years of ethical theory, screw Socrates and screw Western thought, let's just let scientists be experts in everything becuase science is the only form of knowledge."

how about this? religion can decide the nature of wave particle duality. now screw all that Quantum stuff let's start looking through the bible to find verses about the nature of light, Good is goodness, so I we need to ask "are waves good or are particles good?"

that's just the sort of thing he's doing.
he's just using the same three tricks that the reductionist scam always uses:

(1) lose the phenomena

in this case ethical thinking and the all specialized theorizing that has been part of an academic discipline since the middle ages is gone.

(2) remove counter evidence by circular reasoning

Usually this is done by saying "this can't be evidence of a miracle because there is no evidence of miracles" but the reason there is none is because whenever it's presented then it's rejected on the grounds that there is none, and this has gone on so long that people start believing there really is none.

In this case it's done by asserting the values he wants to put over as the basic goal of all ethical thinking, just conveniently pretending the rest of the data has never presented (deontolgoical thinking).

(3) re defining the terms

having made the counter data go away then the terms are re-defined to give the illusion that there was never anything there.

In my forth coming book I have two whole chapters where I follow philosopher Wayne Proudfoot through a whole book he wrote and show point for point how the applies this technique to make religious experience go away.


Meta, if you really disagree with the notion that consequentialist ethics based on reducing human suffering and promoting human welfare is a common denominator for a vast majority of ethical thought, then it should be easy for you to show me some concrete examples of when your morality breaks against this rule of thumb. In other words, I'd like you to show me where we would disagree about what is ethical and what is wrong. When do you think it is okay for people to be hurt, and when is it bad for them to flourish, thrive, or be happy?


asking me that is really a doge. The issue is how can we do ethical thinking without using ethical thinking but filtering it through a discipline that is not about ethics? We can only do it by reducing ethical thinking to phsyical world and not thinking ethically.

To do that Harrish just asserts the basic values of utilitarianism as though they are al there is to ethics, then you are trying to justify that move by asserting there can't be anything then saying "ok well show me something if that's the case" as though there are no non-consqeuntialist philosophers. the vast majority of ethicist are non consequential. consentuqialism is taken to be dead and John Rawls is understood to be the last guy to drive the last nail in the coffin.

You should watch that ethics show on PBS. I see it on Sunday night around 6pm but you should look for it on PBS.org. It's a great show they just show a class at Harvard.

There are tons of other ethical theories. Consequential is considered old hat.

Quantum Troll

KR, I'm inclined to maybe believe you. I'm agnostic about the roots of morality. But I think there are more important questions of morality than where morality comes from.

think about what you are saying! don't you know how logic works? you seem to think that ethical thinking can just start from a subjective and emotive value oriented position based upon people who want to think ethically agreeing with certain kind of value as though no one ever thought about ti before. That's like doing away with the data and pretending ethical thinking doesn't exist.

Quntum Troll

Questions about how to actually live in this complicated world of ours. And those are the sorts of moral questions that science might be used for.


you can't begin to think about that without a meta ethical theory. How do you know avoiding pain is good? You like it does that make it ethical? Unless you have a theory of what makes a choice right or wrong then you are not doing ethics. So to say science can do ethics is really just a smoke screen and what you really mean to say is let's just eliminate ethics and pretend my value system is the only one.

Ironically what these people Rawls have proved is that the high sounding aims of utilitarianism turn out be bunk and they pollute the morality of the individual and justify murder like the contra war.

What atheists scoff at because they hate and don't want strictures on their life styles actually secure the good of people and stop pain suffering better than utilitarianism.

I can justify the contra was with Utilitarian thinking. I can't justify it with deontology given the concept of love as the primary duty.

In the contra war the contras in Nicaragua murdered, raped, tortured and lied about it in order to create a climate of fear. They murdered 80,000 innocent civilians and they did things such as cutting off little girls heads and putting them on poles. I can justify that by utilitarian standards because the net result was to destroy the Sandinistas and bring back a capitalist government and idea that capitalism is great and socialism is evil then the greatest goof for the greatest number is to destroy the socialist government and the 80,000 victims are just the less number that have to go so the greater number be happy.

It's only if you have a sophisticated sense of ethical philosophy that you can start delineating goals and set priorities that would stipulate a duty not to kill or an obligation to protect the weak or whatever.

But all of that assumes that you have some means of sorting through values so you don't just accept some scientist saying "this is the value we all except because science says our genes tell us to do this."

You can't establish a duty or an obligation without an ethical theory and you can't have an ethical theory by trying to stipulate truth according to genes. Harris wants to use outcome as the measure but that's the problem with teleological ethics. We need an atheist theory that establishes right and wrong up front so we can rule out political murder, which according to the murderer is always for the good.

Quantum Troll
The only thing I am dodging is a few hundred years of inconclusive philosophizing, and I'm only doing temporarily.


here it comes. O philosophy sux because you have to keep doing it. We want solid hard answers that never change and give us the "Facts" once and for all and will always beyond there 100% proved. You not going to get that. Not ever. Because science is a social construct. That's what is and always will be. As long as think in language you will never have the kind certainty about life you have a bout spore samples.

what this tells me is this is an ideological matter not a matter of ethical thinking!

The sad thing is Harris doesn't arrive at those values by science at all. He merely picks them out of popular culture and politics, and he asserts they are the ultimate in human values with no basis other this immediate political concerns.
Quantum Troll

I'm convinced that there is a common denominator in moral thinking. People might disagree about details, priorities, borderline cases, and abstract theory, but the general principle is everywhere about the same. This is all very interesting and worth discussing, but it is beside the point in this thread.


that proves what I'm saying, you are not even trying to show how science can do ethics, that's just show, what you really mean by that phrase is an ideological selection of values that you already approve.

Quantum Troll

The topic I brought up in this thread is that science can answer moral questions. All we need to agree on is that there is common ground for us to work with. What lies beyond this common ground is irrelevant in this thread.


but instead of demonstrating that all you've really demonstrated is that your ideology has pre selected values it can shove in our faces, tell us those are our primary values, claim that it discovered them scientifically without even bothering to back it up (did he even do a survey?) and then pretend like he's actually proved something.

Quantum Troll

[at this point I'm quoting from earlier but here I put it under his name because I'm quoting him but it's a change in subject from what immediacy came before]
I won't admit that this is a good example of what I was asking for, because I think rational and objective research would show that 80,000 dead civilians and countless more terrorized and destroyed families is quite an enormous amount of harm.


Only only only if you are pre disposed to accept it as a harm. if you don't pre select the value (which is not selected by scinece at all) then how do you prove that it is harm? Only if you pre approve the value is it harm. he gives no demonstration of how to do that.

How about someone who is really married to science? What if someone came along and said "people are not special, they are just organisms, they are no better than things under rocks, we don't get upset when aphids die form insecticide, why should be get upset when this sort of organism dies?" how could you go about proving (with science mind you) that people are more special than bugs?

can't pre seelct, can't appeal to culture, you have to demonstrate by science.

Quantum Troll

A peaceful, gradual transition would achieve the same goal without the harm. Not to mention that the goal itself (laissez-faire capitalism) is highly suspect, and should probably be revised. So there, you provided me with a perfect example of how ideological morality sucks and a "science of morals" could prevent atrocity.


why do we need science to say any of that?
It's only if you have a sophisticated sense of ethical philosophy that you can start dileniating goals and set priorities that would stipulate a duty not to kill or an obligation to protect the weak or whatever.

But all of that assumes that you have some means of sorting through values so you don't just accept some scientist saying "this is the value we all except because science says our genes tell us to do this."

Quantum Troll

Science can help us with morality in two ways. First off, it can help inform us about our values. Note that I'm not claiming that science can do a complete job of setting up a value system. Harris also made this disclaimer.


In what say? Opinion polls? How would you use science to do that and why would it be anymore "demonstrated" than just discussing our values? Moreover, how do you move from "our values" to "right and wrong?" So what if it's our values? How do you prove that our values mean anything?

 Quantum Troll

Second, and this is more important, it can help us make decisions by making evaluations of how well we live up to our standards. A lot of times, what we should do is dependent on what we can do and on the facts of the situation. If our value is to avoid hurting sentient beings, then we can use science to measure how much sentient beings actually hurt and act accordingly. If we have a moral obligation to protect the state of the planet, and we have to balance this with a moral obligation to feed the poor, and we're running out of fresh water in a lot of places, what should we do? I think science has a role in these sorts of questions.


I can tell you of my values just fine without scinece, how does science help us move from the relative discord-able value that means nothing more than some local yahoo thinks X, to "we should do X?"
You can't establish a duty or an obligation without an ethical theory and you can't have an ethical theory by trying to stipulate truth according to genes. Harris wants to use outcome as the measure but that's the problem with teleological ethics. We need an atheist theory that establishes right and wrong up front so we can rule out political murder, which according to the murderer is always for the good.

Quantum Troll

So, according to you, political murder is always bad? If someone had killed Hitler and Mussolini in the early 1930's, would that really have been so bad?


No what I said and irrelevant. The issue is how to derive an ought. i still don't see you showing me a way science does that? It looks to me like all you are doing is assuming that the way we already feel is the basis of ethics. How is that an ought?

Quantum Troll

I'm quite undecided, actually. Harris and I have not said that ethical philosophy is over, science is here to save the day, merely that science is an overlooked tool in moral philosophy.


I still don't see any real demonstration of it's use in ethical thinking.

Notice after all of that:

(1) He never did tell us how is can become "ought." Hume's fork the basic mistake of biolgoically based ethics.

(2) Notice how QT's position degenerated from the strident tone Harris gives in the opening to just a help meet or partner to ethical theory by the end of the thread.

(3) I think the basic reason atheists  want to say that science can take the place of ethics because it backs their ideology that science is the only form of knowledge. They use science as an er zots religion and it functions in their world view in the way that God does in mine. If they replace ethical thinking with science then that's one of the major domains that's left to non scientific thinking and scinece is that much closer to begin all there is in the world of thought. The atheist fundie needs that because for science to take the place of God it must be all  in all.

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