Blackford reply to Harris’s reply

January 20, 2011 • 10:52 am

Over at Metamagician, Brother Blackford has begun a reply to Sam Harris’s post, which itself was a response to Blackford’s review of Harris’s The Moral Landscape.

Russell’s reply will apparently take several installments.  You can read the first one here.

It’s becoming like The New York Review of Books around here.

34 thoughts on “Blackford reply to Harris’s reply

  1. As the Giftmas season increased my personal library by several books, I’m barely halfway into Sam’s book. Consequently, it will be after I finish the book before I seek Russell’s opinion because I have great respect for both gentlemen’s opinion in this regard, and you know the old adage about a little information.

    The idea that a review of books figures so predominately on this site, not to mention most of my favorites, is a very good, very good idea indeed. And I would like to thank all involved for their participation.

    1. …Giftmas…

      Oh, I love that!

      I enthusiastically second the sentiments in your second paragraph. We’re like a salon* or Chautauqua here (only with kittehs instead of religion)…

      *A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge of the participants through conversation. –Wikipedia

        1. That’s impressive!

          The glib response here, then, would be, “you come by it honestly.” (For all suitable referents of ‘it.’) 😉

          Perhaps you’ll find time someday to fill us in on the details at your blog?

  2. Maybe when they’re done they can bundle it together into a book and call it The Symposium II.
    So who gets to be Alcibiades.

  3. I think Blackford brings up some important points. It’s one thing to say science can help us arrive at a consensus concerning difficult moral issues. It’s another to say there are de facto moral truths in the universe that science can answer. In other words, community decisions concerning morality that are informed by our best science makes sense … whereas moral objectivism doesn’t. “Moral truths” reminds me of the eternally recurring ontological argument.

    1. I’m happy enough to know that you don’t need a divinity to lay down what is moral, and that for most cases, our gut feelings that, say, killing or theft are wrong, are near enough to what is the best outcome for humanity.

      Hard cases make bad law, and the trolley paradox is a bit like an optical illusion. The fact that you can see that you ought to tip the fat person off the bridge to save the five passengers dosn’t make you feel any better about doing it, just as you trace your finger around the circle ( and it still looks like a spiral.

      1. Nonetheless, the thesis Harris proposes would contribute to minimizing many forms of lower-level moral relativism while providing a base-line of ethical standards to work from. No one can argue that minimizing human suffering by employing scientific analysis is not a worthy goal. It’s discrepancies in defining the stratosphere of well-being that becomes problematic.

  4. Blackford is entirely right in repeating his criticism of what appears to be Harris’s fundamental flaw in his thesis: well-being. I think Harris has grabbed the wrong horn on the bull–so to speak–and is determined to run with the idea that morality be based on well-being, when well-being has no possibly basis for measurement. It is neither a thing nor a subjective evaluation, like hot or cold. It is an abstract ideal or category for describing a goal or futuristic aim for a person or community. Therefore it is very much an ‘ought’ and not an ‘is’.

    Simply saying that the problem is not a problem for Sam Harris, does not make the problem disappear, nor is it an adequate response to Blackford’s criticism. Harris seems to nake a further unsatisfactory blunder with the idea that minds exist, therefore morality exists (in the same way atomic matter exists). If we are to measure things in the mind, then we must realise it’s relative to the mind rather like hot or cold is relative to the mind, it’s not an absolute scale.

    And yet, the possibility of a science of morality is still staring everyone in the face: sympathy. Sympathy is an emotion, albeit a complex one, and emotions have a good chance of being measurable (or measurable in the future) at least statistically rather than objectively. A thermometer can measure hot and cold, but it is highly unlikely that a thermometer for sympathy will ever pass outside of the human brain, or for any emotion. However, it can still be measured and form a psychological science of morality.

    If sympathy formed the underlying value of our moral judgements (for example evaluations between victims and persecutors) then we have the simple basis for measuring and analysing moral problems, and we’d move beyond rational philosophy to a real science.

    1. I agree with your first two paragraphs. Concerning your last two, are you referring to “empathy?” Because, if I remember correctly, Pinker uses the evolution of empathy to demonstrate a correlation in the historical reduction of interpersonal violence.

      1. I consider sympathy, empathy and compassion to be all words describing the same feeling of anguish at the suffering of another person.

        Of course there will be slight differences in the terms, as empathy can be generic to apply to any emotion you ‘copy’ from someone else.

        I choose the word sympathy because it’s more specific and doesn’t contain any spiritual baggage that ‘compassion’ might have.

        1. I may be wrong here, as TML is still in my to-read stack, but I’ve somehow picked up the idea that the “well-being” concept includes our perceptions of the well-being of others; so that if we feel via empathy that others are suffering, our own well-being (in terms of psychological comfort) is less than it would be if that weren’t the case. Ergo, this important facet of morality can be seen as reducing to well-being…

          1. Exactly true Diane G.

            When 9/11 happened, we all felt shock, disgust, anger etc., but primarily it was because of our sympathetic nature to the victims who died in such a horrendous manner. Then the incomprehensible injustice because the very people who committed the crime sacrificed their own life.

            This trauma affected everyone globally, but only because of our sympathetic nature. Sympathy goes against the idea of well-being itself. But if we rid ourselves of sympathy and felt nothing for victims on injustice, then what is left for morality?

            1. Sympathy goes against the idea of well-being itself?

              I don’t think I agree with that…

              Sympathy is a built-in, evolved human ability related to having a Theory of Mind. Our ability to sympathize, and the emotions that generates, would have to be included under the umbrella of well-being. The ability to sympathize makes human nature both beautiful and tragic.

              I don’t think “well-being” equals “always being happy-happy”. That’s what Utopia Builders and the religious do, but I don’t think that’s what Harris means by well-being at all.

              1. We really don’t know the criteria of well-being that Harris means.

                Although to quote TML: “Throughout this book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape”–a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.” And so, either he means happy-happy or some state of nirvana or something else that opposes suffering. But clearly sympathy goes into the direction of suffering and away from well-being as Harris views it.

            2. But clearly sympathy goes into the direction of suffering and away from well-being as Harris views it.

              That’s absolutely ridiculous. I can’t refrain from invective. If you’ve read TML and you’ve come away thinking that you are incredibly dense.

            1. Wow. What book were you reading? And did you read the The End of Faith by the way? You should have picked it up there.

              Without sympathy, and like emotions, you negate the basis of morality and value.

            2. OK, well, I obviously can’t continue till I’ve read the book. The discussions here will probably make me a more critical reader than I might otherwise have been, and I suppose that’s a good thing…

        2. sympathy is “The quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other”, empathy – a loan translation from German – “The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.”

    2. I too buy in to those two first paragraphs. It encapsulates the problem with Harris’ thesis well.

    3. I think you’re first two paragraphs are wrong. And I don’t understand what you’re saying in your second two.

      You say that well-being has no possibility of measurement. It seems that the only way that can be true is if you maintain that all brain states are equivalent. That in reality no differences exist in how much well-being is enjoyed by different people. Or that any state of mind can be sensibly considered to be “good” by someone.

      For example, do you think it is defensible to think a high level of anxiety is something that characterizes the good life? If not, then we might have one criterion there (surely among many) which can be used for “well-being”. And that is something which can possibly be measured/assessed.

      If we are to measure things in the mind, then we must realise it’s relative to the mind rather like hot or cold is relative to the mind, it’s not an absolute scale.

      He seems perfectly clear that in the domain of morality/value/well-being there is no more an “absolute scale” than there is for scientific medicine. Scientific medicine is ‘relative’ to the facts of human biology.

  5. “It is neither a thing nor a subjective evaluation, like hot or cold. It is an abstract ideal or category for describing a goal or futuristic aim for a person or community”

    That describes much of what Harris is trying to deal with. “Human values” are an abstraction, a philosophical construct. It seems to me that Harris is making a category error in suggesting that they can be determined by science. Science can quantify human emotion, including suffering, but it can no more determine what we should be aiming for politically than it can determine what we should be deciding to research in science.

    1. However, once you take science as your epistemology about human nature, then it’s far more likely you end up liberal/progressive regarding morality, human rights, social equality, etc,

      It’s no coincidence that scientists tend to be progressives, or that liberals tend to respect science, or that conservatives are more likely to attack it. Making the connection between empiricism and progressive policies explicit will force conservatives to defend their epistemic commitments, which should prove interesting.

      1. once you take science as your epistemology about human nature, then it’s far more likely you end up liberal/progressive

        Wait — that’s the motivation for this project? I thought it was figuring out some sort of truth, rather than engaging in post hoc justification of pre-existing political commitments.

    2. Science can quantify disease processes but it can’t determine what we should be aiming for in the domain of physical health.

  6. The part I find somewhat intriguing about this discourse is the arguments Blackford seems to use as a reply to Harris seem not to fit well with his defense of Coyne’s claim that “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science.”

    Blackford seemed to argue that if someone claims; “god created the earth 6,000 years ago”, then of course we can say that the claim is falsified, shown false etc. Yet, if I point out the part about “god created” is meaningless in any scientific sense (what science has show is the claim the earth is 6,000 years old is false – they are likely believing a falsehood or rejecting the truth etc.), it is after all not a scientific theory to start – it is argued the foundation of the “god” claim is not necessary because of vagueness to definition mainly (define ‘god’ or ‘supernatural force’ or ‘nature’). Even though when speaking of having a metric to make claims like Jerry has over a “supernatural force” there is little else I can imagine having less recourse to a metric, data and sensible claims to the reach of science.

    1. Two *completely* different problems.

      Harris observes moral behavior and is trying to construct a method to adjudicate in the area – he fails.

      Coyne observes natural phenomena and notes that in as much as religion tries to “recourse to a metric, data and sensible claims to the reach of science” it fails (as you too note) – so he succeeds. It is *religion* who tries to take on the metric of science, not the other way around.

  7. While Blackford’s criticism about boundary or metric of WBness is correct, his formulation does not feel right. His comparison of Handa and Mazda is off the mark.

    WBness is in the realm of ‘customer satisfaction’ or ‘happiness index’.

    Moreoever, I can see that Harris is still struggling with this WBness. It is more like a catch-all at the moment.
    This discourses is important in the sense that Harris needs to work more on the details, and that’s really necessary.

    Come On!

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