Michael Shermer’s “review” of Faith versus Fact

July 18, 2015 • 10:45 am

I put “review” in quotes above, because Michael Shermer’s precis of Faith versus Fact in the latest Scientific American isn’t really a review at all, but a further plumping for his claim that—as Sam Harris also espouses—science can hand us objective moral truths. (See Shermer’s new book, The Moral Arc, for a fuller exposition.) The full Sci Am piece is behind a paywall, but here’s what Michael says about FvF.

He’s talking here about Steve Gould’s NOMA hypothesis: that science and religion comprise “nonoverlapping magisteria” because science’s duty is to tell us about the natural world, while the bailiwick of religion is that of meaning, morals, and values. Gould saw this as a way to reconcile the two areas, with each occupying an “equally important” area.  I take Gould’s thesis apart of FvF, but you can read my book if you want to see those criticisms. Here’s what Shermer says:

Initially I embraced NOMA because a peaceful concordat is usually more desirable than a bitter conflict (plus, Gould was a friend), but as I engaged in debates with theists over the years, I saw that they were continually trespassing onto our turf with truth claims on everything from the ages of rocks and miraculous healings to the reality of the afterlife and the revivification of a certain Jewish carpenter. Most believers hold the tenets of their religion to be literally (not metaphorically) true, and they reject NOMA in practice if not in theory—for the same reason many scientists do. In his 2015 penetrating analysis of Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne eviscerates NOMA as “simply an unsatisfying quarrel about labels that, unless you profess a watery deism, cannot reconcile science and religion.”

Curiously, however, Coyne then argues that NOMA holds for scientists when it comes to meaning and morals and that “by and large, scientists now avoid the ‘naturalistic fallacy’—the error of drawing moral lessons from observations of nature.” But if we are not going to use science to determine meaning and morals, then what should we use? If NOMA fails, then it must fail in both directions, thereby opening the door for us to experiment in finding scientific solutions for both morals and meaning.

Well, how about using reason and philosophy, as well as innate preferences, to determine meaning and morals? I won’t go into my objections to the science-can-tell-us-moral-truths fallacy (yes, it’s a fallacy), as I’ve laid them out before. Suffice it to say that at the bottom of all “scientific” schemes of determining morality are preferences that lie outside science’s ambit. Certainly science can help us determine the best ways to realize our preferences, but can Shermer tell us, for instance, whether it’s immoral to shoot coyotes that are suspected of eating livestock? How do you weigh the different varieties of well being (if that’s your currency for morality), and balance them against each other? How can that ever be more than a judgment call?

Well, I’ll let the readers argue this one out. At least Shermer called my book a “penetrating analysis” in the middle of an extended advertisement for his own book. Reader John O’Neall informs me that both Shermer’s and my own book are on the Edge summer reading list (no surprise given that John Brockman, who runs Edge, is our agent), but there are several other intriguing books on the list, including the second volume of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography and Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which has gotten good reviews.

104 thoughts on “Michael Shermer’s “review” of Faith versus Fact

  1. I’ve just finished the book and am preparing an Amazon review (UK).

    I found it totally compelling. Call me naive but I really can’t think of a thing to criticise. Well maybe the last few sections seemed a little hurried, such as that on climate change denial but, hey, it’s a long book that I just wanted to keep going. I’m disappointed that Amazon UK already has at least one disparaging review, together with his friends boosting his comments level, but I think the overwhelming response to the book has been very positive indeed.

  2. Well, I can decide what is moral, buy you can’t. 😏

    I finished my second reading of FvsF and I find every argument/case to be compelling, especially since the counter arguments are discussed and refuted.

  3. ‘Tis an ancient debate, to be sure.

    Science most emphatically cannot tell you what you want — though, of course, if you’re not sure what you want, a scientific approach to analyzing your own needs and desires is going to have the best chance for success.

    However, once you know what you want, science can tell you how to maximize your chances for success.

    The key is that there are many common and overlapping desires and prerequisites. We all, for example, have a desire to eat. And, with vanishingly rare exception, staying alive and under our own control is necessary to accomplish pretty much all goals anybody might have.

    Once you’ve made it that far, the rest pretty much falls out naturally. You’re likely going to want to do more than spend your whole life grubbing for food, and there’s no better way to free up time and resources for those other things than by cooperating with other people to hunt and gather and farm and cook and what-not. But those other people won’t want to have anything to do with you if you’re the archetypal barbarian who steals and rapes and kills and what-not; indeed, they’ll band together and put you out of their misery, which ends your chances for any other sort of success.

    And, of course, it goes both ways. If a bunch of people band together to enslave some other set of people, the masters are going to have to devote a lot of their own resources to keeping the slaves in line, and the slaves aren’t going to be anywhere near as productive for the whole of society as they would otherwise. As we’ve seen throughout history, that’s an unstable situation that always ends badly for basically everybody. It’s the societies that open the doors for their entire populations to excel that thrive; there’s no wasted resources making people miserable and the not-miserable people do more for themselves and everybody else.

    Where we go from here depends on how good a job at building cooperative societies that maximize individual potential — that give individuals the most incentives to contribute to the whole by giving them the greatest amount of support from the whole.

    And I think science can tell us an awful lot about how to go about doing that.

    Cheers,

    b&

    1. “Science most emphatically cannot tell you what you want — though, of course, if you’re not sure what you want, a scientific approach to analyzing your own needs and desires is going to have the best chance for success.”

      I think that the science of psychology can actually tell us a great deal about what we want, what motivates our behavior, etc. Even if it’s not “test tube” science, and therefore its answers may not always hold true for each individual subject.

        1. Almost.

          What I meant by that first sentence is that science cannot reveal unto you a Platonically ideal dictate of what it is that you should want. Of course, once you’ve settled on what it is that you want, science is practically overkill to figure that out. In those inbetween cases, science is useful — where you haven’t made up your mind what you want, you might be able to refine your desires with “science broadly construed,” and where your wants are set but you, for whatever reason, are conflicted or suppressing them or whatever, science can again help lay them bare.

          But for things like what major you should pursue in college, or if you should even go at all? That’s not a scientific question. Science can predict likely outcomes of the various choices with varying degrees of uncertainty, but it can’t tell you that one particular choice is superior in an absolute sense; only you can decide that for yourself.

          b&

          1. What I meant by that first sentence is that science cannot reveal unto you a Platonically ideal dictate of what it is that you should want.

            Why does it have to be a Platonically ideal dictate? If wanting to gut and rape people lands someone in jail, you don’t need to be a Platonist to point out that they should have wanted something else out of life, any more than you have to be a Platonist to point out that a faulty outboard motor “should” have been designed X, Y, and Z rather than A, B, and C.

            But for things like what major you should pursue in college, or if you should even go at all? That’s not a scientific question.

            How? Science routinely picks out “superior” hypothetical alternatives from “inferior” hypothetical alternatives, from engineering to evolution – where there’s no conscious mind needed to decide in the first place – and none of these are treated as somehow mysterious like ethics is. Wants and desires aren’t even the last word in ethics, as the case of the person whose criminal desires lead to ruin shows.

            Of course the answer to the question may be hard to answer, there may be two or more answers that are equally good, people might get the answers wrong, or the person asking might have little to no idea ahead of time of what the criteria are. But unless humans work in a completely different way from the rest of the universe, those criteria exist and are just as much part of the physical universe as other complex abstractions with empirical ties, like natural selection, sociability, mathematics, and logic are.

            1. 1. Science doesn’t “pick” alternatives of evolution; it discovers what actually happened!

              2. Something that forms without a conscious mind involved is not “engineering”.

              3. Many types of living beings, and especially humans, make long sequences of large-scale unpredictable motions of solid structures neither resulting in loss of their own form nor caused by an external force. And yes, that IS completely different from most other types of matter.

              1. 1. Science doesn’t “pick” alternatives of evolution; it discovers what actually happened!

                That doesn’t represent what I’m actually saying. For starters, there’s a bit more to science than history. If you’re trying to explain, say, the design of the wing, you compare it with alternative designs and compare aerodynamic capabilities, just to pick one example. For another thing, whenever testing a hypothesis, you always have to compare it to the alternatives to figure out what’s closer to reality. That’s why I said “picks out”, not “picks”.

                2. Something that forms without a conscious mind involved is not “engineering”.

                Where did I say it was, collin237? The parenthetical was next to the word “evolution”, not “engineering”. Was that syntactic placement not common-sense enough or obvious enough for you?

                3. Many types of living beings, and especially humans, make long sequences of large-scale unpredictable motions of solid structures neither resulting in loss of their own form nor caused by an external force.

                Correction: nor caused by an obvious or immediate external force. What it senses, its prior development, what its mother ate while it was in the womb, etc. are all technically external forces. Taken pedantically enough, this is like claiming living things are uncaused causers, which isn’t too different from the dualist idea of free will. And I think some physicist would point out that a living thing not only has to change in huge and complex ways its own form just to stay alive, but that living things probably also lose energy and are never exactly the same at the end of an action as when they started. But pedantics aside…

                And yes, that IS completely different from most other types of matter.

                Completely, huh? To the point that they are exempt from the laws of the universe? That they’re made out of radically different ingredients? That we can assume our instincts about them are fine and exempt from the scrutiny we give to other physical systems?

                Unless you’re a consciousness dualist who claims minds are fundamentally, ontologically distinct from – rather than a subset of – material processes, that doesn’t make an iota of difference. That living things are a highly interesting, complicated, and endlessly varied phenomenon, which do require different levels and special explanations for us to have a chance of understanding them, doesn’t change the fact that a flying bird trying to attract a mate is still subject to physical laws, from the gross weight of its body to the higher-level computation of its prefrontal cortex. Its behaviour can be broken down – if you want to be ruthlessly thorough – to non-biological components. To say it’s completely different from most other types of matter is borderline vitalist.

                That’s why a key criterion for ethical naturalism is that, just like biological entities are reducible to non-biological components, so moral features are reducible to non-moral components. Defy that, and you’re heading – however unintentionally – into dualist territory.

            2. Why does it have to be a Platonically ideal dictate? If wanting to gut and rape people lands someone in jail, you don’t need to be a Platonist to point out that they should have wanted something else out of life, any more than you have to be a Platonist to point out that a faulty outboard motor “should” have been designed X, Y, and Z rather than A, B, and C.

              You’re falling into the same sort of short-term thinking trap that most of the criminals themselves land in. Your objection would similarly apply to any self-sacrificing behavior. A firefighter who rushes into a burning building to rescue those within and who subsequently dies an horrible death in the attempt “should” have wanted something else.

              We can pretty much all agree that the firefighter’s sacrifice is at least potentially a respectable one, but that the criminal’s sacrifice generally isn’t. Yet there are criminals who are genuinely unrepentant and consider the price they pay perfectly worthwhile. And the waters get even muddier very quickly when you consider civil disobedience…”should” King have wanted something else out of life that didn’t land him in the Birmingham Jail?

              If you go into whatever you do with your eyes open, and especially if you come out of it with no regrets…that’s as optimal as decision-making gets, at least at the personal level.

              Where morality comes into play…well, Evolution has a lot to do with it. As I’ve described in previous posts in this thread, we have a lot of shared goals and desires, and those goals are most effectively realized with the help of society. For example, we’ve all wanted something not ours, but most of us realize that the cost of taking it through force (or deception or whatever) nearly always outweighs the benefit of having it — and, even when that doesn’t apply in immediate circumstances, it would be the case in a more optimal society…and forsaking the immediacy for the optimal is what it’s all about.

              b&

              1. You’re falling into the same sort of short-term thinking trap that most of the criminals themselves land in.

                Hold up – that’s something you’re bringing to my argument. My point doesn’t remotely rely on any kind of myopia, especially in order to equate sadism with self-sacrifice.

                For starters… yes, yes it shouldn’t be the case that a fire fighter, say, loses his* life to protect others. It would be better if he didn’t, not just because of the death in and of itself, but because of the lost professional powers to save more lives and protect others. No such argument can be made for a sadist, who increases suffering for nothing. And even allowing that any particular death can cause other responses, which beget further responses, which beget further responses, and so on, it’s only our limited capacity for understanding complex causes that would, in practice, force us to narrow down our considerations to, say, the immediate future. Yet, this is a problem that would bedevil any and all attempts to understand human societies in any case. It’s hardly a unique barrier to gleaning universal truths about ethics. If we could – in some fantasy scenario – bring about a happy world by picking one scapegoat to suffer for everybody, the sheer unpleasantness of the act doesn’t disappear.

                *I assume a he for the sake of simplicity, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be a she.

                Secondly, the unpleasantness of self-sacrifice is another reason why it “should” be minimized. That’s why we teach our kids about the dangers of playing with matches, or tell people where the fire exits are, or fireproof buildings as best we can. The sad fact, though, is that in a universe as chaotic as this one, sheer bad luck is going to claim some victims, so anyone aiming to remove all suffering is automatically in an unwinnable scenario. So it goes. Life sucks. If that’s what the ethics comes out as, then facts are facts no matter how much we resent them.

                Hence the third point: the only way to make it palatable is to reduce the risk as much as possible, and make hard-nosed trade-offs where that can’t be done. Yes, it sucks that he dies, but it would suck more if lots of people choked to death in a fire, so we shoulder the lesser evil.

                Lastly, regarding the original point of contention, science doesn’t reveal Platonically ideal dictates, so assuming that’s how it would ground an ethics is a misrepresentation. You don’t need Platonic idealism to point out, say, the aerodynamic properties of a bird in flight. You certainly don’t need it for the much messier business of working out the ins and outs of measuring and studying the nature of ethics.

          2. Why would science have to tell you which major you ought to choose or whether or not to go to college with 100% certainty, as a yes or no equation? Science is often probabilistic, and statistical, not all or none. Think for example of how entropy is studied, it is a purely statistical field. So a science of morality may give you a 70% chance of being better off choosing philosophy rather than biology rather than an absolute 100% chance of a greater outcome. Or it may say they are equally good options, saying that science can’t tell you what you are better off by comparing it to all or none answers is wrong, and I think a typical error people think of when they think of why morality cannot be based on science. People think rules when they think morality, and always preferring simple answers they want all or nones. But we can’t even predict with certainty both the position and velocity of an electron, does this mean that we should just make “judgement calls” or have subjective preferences for where the electron is likely to be and how fast it is going? Or should we use the method that can most accurately predict and explain the answer?

            It should also be noted that when people weigh what major they are going to chose, they use a rationalistic quasi-scientific method of thought about their preferences… Will this major make me more money, will I enjoy this more… etc. Why not do it the right way, and go beyond this philosophizing into something more rigorous?

    2. I think this is on the right track. The key (and Ben says something similar later in the thread) is not to confuse morality with a magic spell that charms everyone who hears it. Someone with no concern for their long run future and with no interest in justifying their ways to others, will not be interested in morality. But, given a few such desires, which are widespread after all, a lot of things follow – which is the basis for a naturalistic ethics.

  4. “I put “review” in quotes above, because Michael Shermer’s precis of Faith versus Fact in the latest Scientific American isn’t really a review at all, but a further plumping for his claim that—as Sam Harris also espouses—science can hand us objective moral truths.

    […]

    At least Shermer called my book a “penetrating analysis” in the middle of an extended advertisement for his own book.”

    For me this gave the impression that Shermer was supposed or pretended to review FvF, but chose to talk about his book instead. Was that the case? I can only see the part of his article above the paywall, but it doesn’t look like it to me.

    1. I read the full article and the whole thing wasn’t a review but you could call his mentioning an ersatz review of Jerry’s take on NOMA.

      The whole thing was too short IMHO. I don’t buy the external morality thing to be discovered by science and a longer piece is really warranted to discuss this. It seemed to me the points were hurried and therefore somewhat badly made.

      1. Thanks, Diana. I reserved judgement because I couldn’t see the whole article, but if it wasn’t meant as a review at all, I’ll now add that

        “At least Shermer called my book a “penetrating analysis” in the middle of an extended advertisement for his own book”

        strikes me as curmudgeonly.

  5. Fact versus fiction…

    Comparing faith to science is like comparing abacus to smartphone.

    Different people, different times, different needs.

    Shocking is how stubbornly some of modern hunter-gatherers (or better shoppers-collectors) reject what is feeding and sustaining them in favour of past mythology…

    Our global village is not an uniform realm. We live in spectrum of stages of human evolution coexisting and interacting – more intensely now than ever before.

    It is a big trouble how to educate worlds population to communicate and live in peace.

    Best regards.

  6. One of the best courses I took in seminary was on the history of Western ethical philosophy. Approaches to ethics fall in 3 or 4 categories:

    1) De-ontological ethics- absolute unbending rules- Kant.

    2) Virtue ethics- character building and fulfilling one’s purpose in life- Aristotle.

    3) Consequentialist ethics- ethics judged by the consequences of one’s conduct- Jeremy Bentham & John Stuart Mill

    Wikipedia lists both Sam Harris and Peter Singer in its list of consequentialist ethical philosophers.

    4) Pragmatic ethics- a bit hard to define.

    Now surely, science has the most to contribute to the discussion if we are committed to Consequentialism. But you still need basic moral premises that cannot be adjudicated by science.

    1. Problem with so called philosophy and religion consists of conviction of truth beyond the need of any prove (a priori)…
      Faith is above the experience and experiment.

      One can’t make sense in crossing religion with science – they have in common only our reality – they refer to – one as the outcome – other as a way to transcendental imaginary world, which is ultimate outcome.

      They are both instruments in mobilising people to get together working on a project, they both use our common virtual reality called civilisation, but they differ in building targets and methods, leading to the final destination – one on Earth, other in Heavens…

      They differ in directions, points of origin, they differ in demands and expectations. The base of public support is different as well.

      Rhetoric and semantics, complicated definitions and all that jargon would not dilute basic lack of understanding – fanatics of both sides would not agree to disagree…

      With sympathy and respect

      1. I agree entirely that religion and science often take us in different directions. Science is about the world around us. Many religions are to one degree or another about how to ascend into heaven.

        I’m not quite sure what you mean by different points of origin. One could interpret that phrase many ways.

        Once you go the route of making faith the pivotal virtue of your religion, believe that faith is necessary for salvation, and think that faith entails believing blatantly counter-evidential propositions, you are in deep conflict with modern science. (Sam Harris is the most eloquent of the “four horsemen” about this, IMO.)

        However, religion and science are both interested in man’s place in a larger cosmos and scheme of things. Today it is mainly religion in the generic sense as celebrated by Einstein, or rather differently by Benjamin Franklin that is compatible with science. (Franklin has been referred to by several historians as the first advocate of “generic religion”).

        I don’t fully agree with Dawkins that Einstein used the “wrong word” when he said that in a particular sense he was “religious”. But then again, I live in the San Francisco Bay area, not Texas or Tennessee, so that makes it a tad easier for me.

        However, I agree with Dawkins et al that there are problems with calling the non-supernatural philosophy of John Shelby Spong “Christianity”, and likewise the “demythologized” Christianity of Rudolf Bultmann. Their views are (mostly) compatible with science, but are not recognizable to most as Christian.

        1. Einstein and Founding Fathers referred often to different God and religion than modern versions of monotheism…
          They were speaking about epicurean natural order and they called it “religion” – beautifully described by Matthew Steward in his “Nature God…”
          In discussions about science, history and philosophy – genealogy of ideas, semantics and strict definitions are very helpful…
          In Carlo Rovelli’s book about Anaxymander everyone can follow a struggle of students braking away from concepts of their admired masters. Many of them faithful believers, alchemists and priests. All contributed to science. Good example Copernicus.
          Religion, mythology, culture and civilization – all are the methods to make people work together. (YN Harari – thank you!)
          Science as religion is a tool. Science flexible open to new point of view and new model of reality behind each corner.
          Religion most of the time wants to replace reality in the centre of human attention, with myth and tradition.
          They both can be used for common good, they both can serve an evil rulers, we had a lot of examples in recent history.
          I wish, they should not stop people from talking to each other.

          Regards

        2. “Science is about the world around us. Many religions are to one degree or another about how to ascend into heaven.”

          If you think about it, those “many religions” are just a narrow subject within science. You can stick heaven in a neighbouring universe and make it accessible only to dead people, but it’s still something about the world that someone could set up studies for to discover what it is and how it works.

          How could the methods of ascending into heaven not come under the umbrella of “the world around us”?

    2. Hmmm the basic moral premises bit I think may be informed by science. If we are our brains, morality arises from brain configurations that seemed to best suit the environments our species found themselves in. In seems that cooperation and other social activities had an advantage over non-cooperation and anti-social activities.

      Moral premises therefore are consequentialist.

      1. And if a study of our brains turns up that that we are a lot like chimpanzees, with a moral instinct to cooperate within groups but also a moral instinct to treat non-group competitors badly, what then? How can we say “the first is natural so we ought to act that way. However the second is merely natural, ergo we ought not act that way.” I’d be very careful about ceding definitions of morality or oughts to the way our brain is structured. You might not like where that leads.

        In fact, given that human history is about a million years long and modern western pan-cooperative morality is maybe 100-200 years old (remember, 200 years ago us modern western uber-cooperators kept slaves), if I had to bet money on it, would bet strongly on our moral instincts or moral hard-wiring not aligning with modern western morality. It would be quite a remarkable coincidence if they did.

        Instead, I’d say that our morality ought to be (heh) a form of rationally-informed goal-meeting. As other commenters have noted, the social goals we set may not be scientifically determinable, but once you have them, science is certainly a better tool than instinct for analyzing the pros and cons of the various courses of action that may get us to that goal.

        1. Ok so I never said anything like we should get morality from our brain structure. My point was that morality is consequentialist. There is no morality out there waiting to be discovered outside out brains. Go ahead and re-read what I said. I will wait here.

  7. I think science can help us make good decisions and can help in deciding the best choice, but it can’t decide what is moral.

    You can use statistical analysis to prove what Ben Goren says above in his example – that slavery is a bad choice when it comes to allocating resources for both the slavers and the enslaved. However, that’s not the same as morality. For that we go to philosophy, and that shows us it’s wrong.

    There are some people that come to a different conclusion of course, but they are unable to justify their position when we have the freedom to discuss the issue i.e. the principles of freedom of thought and speech.

    Those who try to justify something like slavery can’t do it without resorting to religion, or another irrational system, which imposes actions that humanity would otherwise recoil from.

    1. Heather, Isn’t a justification of slavery simply, “We live a better life because of the work they do. They are not us so why does it matter?”

      Probably, to be continued…

      1. I would say if we cannot agree that morally, slavery is bad and at the bottom end of humanity then we cannot discuss morality at all. And this is why, for the religious to say they get their morals from the bible and from their religion just does not work.

      2. It’s a justification, yes, but a fallacious one. The masters have short-term gains that dramatically reduce their long-term opportunities.

        Think of a child wondering whether it’s worth it or not to get out of bed to use the restroom. There are certainly advantages to just letting go, but only if one only considers the next minute or three. Once your horizon makes it to the point that…ah…things start to cool off, the disadvantages seriously outweigh the trivial-in-comparison advantages.

        The same pretty much encapsulates all the other “Well why shouldn’t we all just <insert horror /> then if you’re just looking out for yourself (and / or the gods won’t intervene somehow)?” arguments. Yes, you can gain some short-term benefit by stealing something (or raping or murdering or whatever), but the long-term detriment is dramatically worse. And that’s the case for societies with a lax attitude towards crime as well as for more modern civilizations.

        b&

        1. When the issue is slavery in this discussion, I can’t help thinking of some of the things said by Abe Lincoln during his 4 years as President. It was certain that Abe was a man of his time with all the prejudices to go with it. He was also from Illinois mostly and did not see slavery close up but a few times. The idea of it and the actual seeing it was a revulsion to him and he never got over that. So even though he backed the idea of shipping them all back to Africa or someplace else, he also said – If slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong.

          1. Lincoln’s viewpoint on race, as opposed to slavery, was one that evolved from logical inconsistency to moral clarity. Yes, as an adult politician he said that he had ‘always hated slavery’ and for that matter any sort of forced, unrequited labor (he noted of his father’s perfectly legal hiring his son out: ‘I once was a slave’).

            When he justified his anti-slavery (not abolitionist) view, he did so on the basis of the Declaration of Independence. All men (i.e., all of humankind) had been created equal, and Africans in slavery were members of humankind. Ergo. . . .

            But he was slow to come to Africans’ being fully equal in citizenship and civil rights with white Americans. Hence your mention of his pushing colonization (though he abandoned that entirely after the disaster of sending a boatload of freed blacks to Ile-a-Vache, Haiti, late in 1863).

            The point is that he got there: with the two constitutional amendments late in his administration–the 13th, which he saw through into law, and the 14th, which he came strongly to favor at the time of his assassination.

            Lincoln thought it through, morally, and did so without religion or science. Granted, one could say with reason that the Declaration’s statement involves making a transcendental rather than ‘scientific’ move on the question of political and social ontology. Yet behind that move was the beautiful statement you quote: ‘If slavery is not wrong, nothings wrong.’

        2. It’s a justification, yes, but a fallacious one. The masters have short-term gains that dramatically reduce their long-term opportunities.

          I don’t think your analogy is empirically valid, as 150 years after the US’ slavery era, the descendants of owners are still reaping benefits that the descendants of the slaves don’t get, at least not to the same degree. Its similar to/analogous to the old adage ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’ – a historical social advantage often snowballs over generations. Even in cases where it doesn’t, its very unclear to me that keeping slaves had a strong negative social or economic impact on the descendants of the people that did so.

          To be sure, enslavement of other humans is both an immoral and counterproductive strategy for meeting some social goals like ‘life, liberty, pursuit of happiness for all humans.’ But you can’t assume or take as a premise that that sort of goal is the only valid one for any human; we moderns have to argue that it should be. We have to convince the world that that’s the goal everyone should have. We can’t just start the conversation by claiming by fiat that social goals not involving equality don’t count.

          1. The descendants of the masters are still more financially secure than descendants of the slaves, yes. The gap is narrowing…but the big point is that the masters are significantly less financially secure than they would have been had they never engaged in slavery in the first place. There would be no gap against to measure differences, but overall and average wealth would both be significantly improved if we didn’t have to deal with inner-city poverty and blight — and that’s before considering all the great new advances we would have had from the descendants of slaves were they not burdened.

            b&

  8. I still see the argument as more over semantics than about preferences; i.e., what is the meaning of “moral values”? Sure, we can say that at the root, it is a preference to increase well being and the preference for what increases well being differs from one person to the next (in some areas at least). But it is hard to argue that given those preferences, science can’t tell us how to achieve them.

    Is an individual’s preference for what constitutes her own well being really that different from an individual’s preference to travel to New Zealand on vacation rather than Hawaii? Once established, surely it is science (not philosophy) that dictates how to best travel to New Zealand safely. There is no philosophical debate about how air travel should be done or that it is the safest way to travel from the continental United States to New Zealand or Hawaii. The case is closed and it was closed by scientific inquiry.

    Science can’t tell us about morals in the same way in can’t tell us about taking that vacation.

    1. (Apologies for the length)

      I actually think this is a really important point. In discussions of whether science can “ground morality,” I see there as being two related but distinct questions; can science give us normativity/oughtness (which is not specifically moral) and what if anything makes some kinds of oughtness specifically moral. The travel example shows that it’s actually pretty trivial to get normativity from the conjunction of facts and preferences/desires, i.e. hypothetical imperatives, and science broadly construed gets us the facts, including the facts about what our preferences are and the effectiveness of various means to those ends. Are hypothetical imperatives “facts” in some sense? One can debate the semantics all day, but they certainly aren’t arbitrary.

      It doesn’t get us free-floating/fundamental imperatives with no preferences involved however, which is what many moral “objectivists” seem to want. Indeed I think it’s utterly mysterious to me what free-floating imperatives (e.g. “I ought to fly a plane” with no assumptions about what anyone wants) would even look like. There certainly isn’t evidence for them. And of course it doesn’t help to say that there are objective facts about what our preferences should be, due to the “should” part.

      So some might object “okay, fine, you can have normativity but this isn’t distinctly moral.” Well sure, if they define a moral imperative as one that is free-floating, or they think there are distinctly moral goods that we can have preferences about, in the sense that something could be good in every nonmoral respect (pleasure, health, and such) and still fail to be morally good/preferable, but I think this is also utterly mysterious in a way similar to free-floating imperatives. I’m not sure it’s even a coherent idea.

      So what do Shermer and the “science can determine values” camp want? Do they think free-floating imperatives are going to fall out of a scientific description of the world, that “save the whales!” and “black coat color in gray wolves is caused by a 3 bp deletion at the k-locus” are the same sort of thing? If not, it seems to me like they are construing a difference of emphasis – “look how much we can do with hypothetical imperatives + science!” vs. “look how different this is from many religious, non-naturalist and folk conceptions of morality” – as a substantive intellectual problem.

      NOMA on the other hand has, contra Shermer, the opposite problem. NOMA, taken seriously, doesn’t claim that there are free-floating imperatives/oughtness baked into reality that we can discover, because that would be a fact and hence a matter for science, and it isn’t just the hypothetical imperative view in disguise. What NOMA seems to commit itself to is utterly arbitrary imperatives cooked up by religions, because either of the other alternatives would involve facts and violate the “truce.” Correct me if my perception is wrong, but this seems to me to be PCC’s and pretty much every other atheist/naturalist critic of NOMA’s point. It’s certainly mine.

      1. Free-floating imperatives is what the subjectivist camp think. The closest they get to a real-world reference is a judgement call, which is arbitrarily supposed to solve the problem in the same way that saying living things work by vitalism allegedly solved biological problems.

        Actually, it’s not that hard to get an objective criterion for meta-ethics along which “good” and “bad” have some real-world referent. The two most conspicuous and recurring examples are suffering (from minor discomfort and stress to full torture) and death. The other moral prescriptions – where they have any weight – largely boil down to concerns for those in some form. You can be uncertain over whether equal treatment is a good or bad thing. It’s hard to be uncertain over whether sticking your hand in an inferno will be hell. The experience of acute pain or distress, without mitigation – however it’s triggered – seems to me to be the ultimate example of a meta-ethical “bad” thing.

        Since it’s undoubtedly created by circuitry in the nervous system, then it must be scientifically amenable to study. One alternative is to claim good and bad have nothing to do with the natural world that science studies, which pits anyone who’s not an ethical naturalist squarely against science, just like a consciousness dualist who claims minds are fundamentally different from matter. The other alternative is to pick a standard that is ultimately arbitrary, which is meaningless and collapses the position to either nihilism or smuggled ethical naturalism.

        Ethics is, basically, a mind science that hasn’t risen out of the morasses yet.

        1. I agree with reasonshark here. After one accepts meta criteria like minimization of suffering, much can be measured. Triage ethics has an example of looking at continued food aid to a needy population in areas unable to grow much food results in lower mortality and suffering short term, but much faster population growth over time. Whenever aid is unavailable in the future, greater numerical suffering results.

  9. Hi Jerry,

    Have you read “The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics”? It’s a bit brisk for the subject material, but it talks about Shermer-esque ethics (including applying the euthyphro dilemma to ‘scientific’ ethics).

  10. Depends on what Shermer means with “determine” meaning and morals. We can certainly use science to find out what people do, their practiced sense of “meaning” and morals.

    But it is we that infuse those senses on an observably meaning-less and moral-less nature. Yes, some species evolves moral behavior and perhaps a sense of meaning as well. But they will vary between species, there are no absolutes except those constraints that inclusive fitness confer.

  11. Many of my critics also fail to distinguish between there being no answers in practice and no answers in principle to certain questions about the nature of reality. Only the latter questions are “unscientific,” and there are countless facts to be known in principle that we will never know in practice. Exactly how many birds are in flight over the surface of the earth at this instant? What is their combined weight in grams? We cannot possibly answer such questions, but they have simple, numerical answers. Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally? For instance, how seriously should we take the claim that there are exactly 23,000 birds in flight at this moment, and, as they are all hummingbirds weighing exactly 2 grams, their total weight is 46,000 grams? It should be obvious that this is a ridiculous assertion. We can, therefore, decisively reject answers to questions that we cannot possibly answer in practice. This is a perfectly reasonable, scientific, and often necessary thing to do. And yet, many scientists will say that moral truths do not exist, simply because certain facts about human experience cannot be readily known, or may never be known. As I hope to show, this blind spot has created tremendous confusion about the relationship between human knowledge and human values.

    When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal wellbeing that we can, in principle, know—simply because wellbeing (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.

    1. I’m presuming the above post is not Sam Harris, but a quote from Sam Harris’ work.
      If so, I’d suggest the use of quotations next time and if possible a link to the original work.

      1. Indeed: the link to the front page of Sam’s website is about as helpful as pointing at ‘the internet’, and can only be interpreted as deliberately rude or clueless. I think the comment falls foul of the ‘anonymous’ policy and should be scrubbed.

    2. i would say that there must be some basic axioms to be agreed before any two or more people can even start to discuss ethics and morals.

  12. We (I think) should just dump the whole concept of morality.

    And just very carefully listen to and evaluate our individual and collective wants and then do our best to assess the consequences of our acting out those wants.

    And here: “wants” and “will” are effectively the same thing. ie recognizing our wants are not free.

  13. I’m not sure that Jerry’s views are that in conflict with Sam Harris’ view of morality.
    Sam presents an argument for objective morality that, as he acknowledges, is philosophical in nature. Essentially, once you get off the ground with the philosophical argument (e.g. what makes sense of what it would mean for something to be good or bad), science takes over quite quickly to push it further.

    It seems to me Jerry has voiced an essentially similar view with respect to the place of science (e.g. it’s primacy as our way of knowing). Unless of course I’m wrong.

    1. Sam presents an argument for objective morality that, as he acknowledges, is philosophical in nature.

      Harris also admits that he has not done his homework by reading up on what others have already contributed to moral philosophy, so it’s hard to consider his “contribution” too seriously.

      1. Reginald,

        I don’t remember Sam ever saying he hadn’t done homework on moral philosophy. In fact he’s often referenced categories of moral philosophy as well as individual philosophers. It’s hard for anyone to have read everything any philosopher has said on the subject, but Sam certainly seems up on many of the relevant criticisms of his position.

        I wonder if you are noting instead the fact Sam hasn’t taken his thesis to the community of moral philosophers, but took it directly to the public. It’s understandable to criticize this, though I think his reasons for his approach have some merit (e.g. he could either remain stuck in academic disputes the public never sees, or, given his celebrity, he can make the public directly aware of a thesis for objective morality).

        I’ve seen quite a number of critics take on Sam’s thesis, including in the philosophical community, and I think Sam holds up no worse than other philosophers under such scrutiny (and often holds up quite well, especially if he’s there to defend his thesis).

      2. I don’t think this is a legitimate way to answer an argument. If Sam Harris’s contribution (and it doesn’t need scare quotes) is flawed then the task is to point out the flaws in the argument. Saying that he’s not an authority because he hasn’t read enough moral philosophy doesn’t engage with the intellectual issue (and is the same tactic used by defenders of religion when they dismiss the arguments of Dawkins et al by saying they have read little or no theology). Personally I think Harris makes a good case (I don’t know Shermer’s book), and if his arguments are indeed fallacious I would be interested to know why.

        1. I agree brandonrobshaw.

          I’ve found that Sam defends his thesis in conversation with critics as well as other philosophers (and sometimes better than some). It’s amazing how often I see critiques of Sam’s idea that just seem to completely ignore he has attended to those very critiques. For instance, I still see everywhere people saying “Sam has just assumed his axiom, but so can others – why go with Sam over Deontology or Divine Command Theory, for instance?”

          But Sam has addressed these critiques many times. The case he makes for his axiom (that morality has to do with the welfare of conscious creatures) is that it both captures the concerns of how people already think, normatively, and that it is really the only sensible underpinning of morality.
          “Bring me your alternatives” he always says.
          When he’s given Divine Command theory as an alternative, he points to where it is smuggling in a concern for conscious welfare, so it does not in fact act as a true counterpoint to his thesis. Same with the categorical imperatives from Deontologists. Sam points out they only make sense insofar as they safeguard our welfare. Then, from the same critics, I just hear crickets chirping, and the same critiques are just repeated again.

          1. The case he makes for his axiom (that morality has to do with the welfare of conscious creatures) is that it both captures the concerns of how people already think, normatively, and that it is really the only sensible underpinning of morality.
            “Bring me your alternatives” he always says.

            I think the problem is that the modern western version of the axiom seems to take it as a given that the welfare of all conscious creatures are approximately equal. Empirically, neither homo sapiens nor our closest relatives have assumed that. PETA and animal rights activists would probably argue that we still don’t do that, that we still practice an in-group/out-group variant of the axiom in which the welfare of some conscious creatures counts more than the welfare of others. After all, the smartest chimps are probably at least as sapient as some heavily brain-damaged humans, yet we don’t give the former the social rights we give the latter. Moreover it is really hard to assert that the ‘inequal’ systems don’t work, given that the inequality variant of the axiom successfully brought us from rock-knocking hominid hunter gatherers to probably the 19th century or so. Yeah maybe we can say modern ‘pan-human welfare’ morality produced the wealth, peace, and prosperity of the 20th and 21st century west. But if you’re going to make that correlation-based claim, then be aware that the same sort of correlation would require us to acknowledge that the ‘tribal welfare’ variant got us from prehistory to the 20th century. That’s hardly a consequentialist failure.

      3. This is absolutely wrong, Sam Harris has a degree in philosophy. If you read the end of faith, he has technical philosophical arguments against pragmatism that illustrates his philosophical ability, and he also identifies as a philosopher more than a neuroscientist. He did not want to bring up technical ethics terminology in The Moral Landscape because he thought it would bore a general readership, not because he is not an expert in it. In an episode of very bad wizards ( a podcast about philosophy) he says that he very much enjoys technical articles, and reiterates the point that he just did not want to use that terminology in the moral landscape. And I agree with the comments below, even if he had never read a philosophy piece in his entire life, you would still need to defeat his argument, not talk about his credentials.

    2. “Sam presents an argument for objective morality that, as he acknowledges, is philosophical in nature.”

      The problem is, so far as I’ve seen, that Harris presents comparative “well being” as a scientific problem. And while it can be to a limited degree, insofar as we can measure various aspects of well being scientifically, it cannot tell us whether providing 100,000 doses of vitamin A to prevent blindness in children for a $100,000 provides greater “well being” than, say, a single kidney transplant that prevents a death. Or whether it is ok save your mother rather than a stranger with that same $100,000 operation. Those are *judgement calls*, or as Jerry refers to them “preferences”, not scientific questions. They are questions that can be *informed* by science, but not answered by science, no more than science can dictate your favorite color, or preferred charity.

      1. These are not judgement calls. If wellbeing is measured in terms of neuroscience then there is no judgement call or subjectivity whatsoever. For the sake of argument pretend that wellbeing corresponds directly to the amount of neural activation in brain area X (the well being center). If 100,000 donated to vitamin A in blind children causes a net total more neural activation in well being area X than does a kidney transplant, then we have an objective measurement of wellbeing that tells us the better moral action.

        This is not a judgement call, but a measurement of brain activity that is quantifiable. Obviously the neuroscience wont be this simple, but brain area x activation probably isnt that far away from reality from what we already know of neuroscience.

        The question about the stranger or the mother is quantifiable as well. How much well being is created by saving the stranger vs the mother? If the mother is a miserable depressed person and the stranger is not, this is an easy answer. Take the stranger. If they are equal, we can discuss the welllbeing they generate in other peoples lives and quantify it.
        Again not a judgement call. A scientific measurement, these are difficult questions to answer, but they are answerable given an advanced state of scientific knowledge.

        1. Sorry, you are just dead wrong. They are moral judgments that can be *informed* by science but not answered by it.

          What you claim is objective scientific measurement is you arbitrarily cherry picking *which* tests will count, and with what weight, to create your “objective” “scientific” finding. You are just hiding the moral judgments back an iteration, leaving a facade of science in front. This is the whole problem with Harris’ “I swear it isn’t Utilitarianism” Utilitarianism. It hides the subjective moral judgments and pretends that they aren’t being subjectively made.

          1. So morality works by magic, does it? Ethics makes no sense whatsoever outside of minds. It can’t be applied to plants or rocks. And you can’t be saying the mind is somehow not scientifically amenable, or else psychology and neuroscience and other mind sciences would be a complete peripheral waste of time.

            If the contents of the minds of conscious beings “don’t count” or “have no weight”, despite being the only sensible candidates for ethical grounding – and assuming rather generously you don’t believe in mind-magic – then you’re basically either a moral nihilist or a closet objectivist.

          2. In what way was the hypothetical example I presented arbitrary? I intentionally designed in so that brain activity that causes wellbeing was the thing being measured. If it is the CAUSE of wellbeing in what way is that arbitrary? Something is arbitrary if it is not clear why it is chosen, but it is beyond any reasonable doubt that wellbeing is a product of the brain. If you doubt that this will ever be measurable I think you are quite likely wrong. It is being measured today, (badly) by psychiatric studies, and being treated today by anti-depressants. But just because a perfect measure of wellbeing is not possible now does not mean it is not scientific. Likewise, many people that believed that atoms existed were scoffed at and thought of as anti-scientific, but as science progressed it demonstrated that there indeed were atoms. I suspect a quantifiable measurement of wellbeing is similar to this.

            I would like to know in what way my example was arbitrary or subjective. It is a quantifiable measure of brain activity, related exactly to wellbeing, so I think it is about as non-arbitrary as any other scientific measurement.

            1. I intentionally designed in so that brain activity that causes wellbeing was the thing being measured. If it is the CAUSE of wellbeing in what way is that arbitrary?

              If we define our terms such that certain brain states are equated with wellbeing, the obvious answer is soma or some other drug or mechanism that artificially permanently induces those brain states without regard to anything else, including external conditions. Some people would delight in such an option, but others find that sort of thing the worst imaginable nightmare. That dichotomy right there is all the proof you need that your definition is arbitrary.

              b&

              1. Your dichotomy does not illustrate that my connection between brain activity and wellbeing is arbitrary. If you want to show that it is arbitrary you have to show that the brain state is not connected to wellbeing, as this would go against everything we know about brain science, good luck.
                What your point does better is show that some people think that wellbeing is a different thing. So what? People are often wrong about what is best for them, religious people think gay marriage is the devils work, and horrible for society, they are wrong. A complete science would know what the actual answer is, and it may not be something that we find intuitive.

                Im open to the possibility that the greatest possible wellbeing is a society hooked up to drugs constantly, I doubt it is true, but i could see it being a possibility. From what we know of drug users, they tend to not be the happiest folks, so a cumulative measurement of their brain activity would not show them to be better off, so I doubt that your empirical claim is accurate, at least with any drugs we have currently. Nor is it at the moment possible to get a constant supply of drugs without some source of income.

              2. Your dichotomy does not illustrate that my connection between brain activity and wellbeing is arbitrary. […] What your point does better is show that some people think that wellbeing is a different thing.

                Sorry, but you right there demonstrated that it’s arbitrary. By your own admission, huge swaths of the population associate “wellbeing” with something other than brain activity. Yet here you are arbitrarily deciding that your own definition is the only one that matters — and this, again, despite the obvious fact that arbitrary brain states can be artificially induced that have no objective connection to the external world.

                By your definition, somebody unknowingly trapped in a fake world (simulation, sound stage, hallucination, whatever) where everything was eternally blissful would have the ultimate wellbeing. Again, I and everybody I know would consider that the ultimate hell.

                Fuck brain activity. My own wellbeing depends critically on what’s actually going on in the Universe — and who the Hell are you to tell me otherwise, to decide for me what my priorities are?

                b&

              3. Hi Ben… Im confused, do you think that if you enjoy a good meal, that the positive feelings associated with it are not caused by brain states? Or if you have a good conversation with a friend, that the positive experience does not correspond to some brain state? Do you really believe that wellbeing exists outside of a brain? What is causing the wellbeing? If you believe that wellbeing is not a brain state, please tell me what else it could possibly be. Im open to some sort of computational processing, say an advanced ai, but as far as we know brains are the only things at the moment that construct emotional states and perception.

                Just because people believe wellbeing is caused by something other than a brain state has nothing to do with whether or not it is true. Many people believe souls exist…. They are wrong. Wellbeing is a brain state, and this is a matter of science, not subjective preference. It is therefore, not even remotely arbitrary. A persons preferences are brain states as well, and no doubt these preferences exist because they are correlated with brain states associated with wellbeing.

                Your wellbeing is constructed by your brain, and its interaction with the universe. The universe without your brain would create no wellbeing. If you were in a 100% accurate simulation, you would not know that you were in a simulation. And the philosopher nick bostrom has made the point that given how computational resources have expanded, there may be an infinite amount of simulations and we could be in one. I don’t believe it, but how would we know? And just because you believe that that experience would be hell, doesnt mean you are right, we would need some proof. Im not advocating this scenario, I doubt it is ideal for wellbeing, but im open to the possibility.

              4. What you’re consistently missing is that whatever you use for your yardstick is what you will align yourself to.

                By picking brain states, you’ve already set yourself up for a perpetual escalation of brain states. And if you don’t see how that rapidly leads to eternal artificially-induced orgasm, nothing else I write is going to get through to you.

                And if that’s your idea of paradise, hey, great for you. Go knock yourself out.

                Just don’t you dare try to drag the rest of us along with you. And you really ought to realize the hubris you have in declaring your own preferences as an universal human goal.

                b&

              5. Ben, you haven’t replied to my question, what causes wellbeing besides a brain state?

                Using brain states not an arbitrary yardstick, it is like using a yardstick to measure length. Why? Because as far as we know wellbeing is a product of the brain, so measuring brain states is the best way to measure it. Just like a ruler, yardstick, measuring tape, etc is the right tool for measuring length.

                It doesn’t matter if this leads to an escalation of brain states in fact i suspect you desire an escalation of brain states, and that is why you pursue the thing that make you happy, because they cause better brain states in you.

                I do not know why you are so opposed, and seem to be scared of this idea that brain states cause happiness. No one that has a scientific background that I would know would deny this. I don’t think a science of wellbeing would try to impose some sort of totalitarian wellbeing machine in which everyone was forced to be on a morphine drip perpetually. I suspect higher wellbeing would be brought about by letting people have choices, and most people would choose the drug option if it really were better. A science of wellbeing does not inevitably lead to some weird dystopian matrix scenario, and I don’t know why you are so concerned with this.

                If you believe that morality is not objective, then do you think that the yazidis who are being stoned by isis members for not wearing their veils are in an equally good moral state as people in the west? If it is a subjective matter of preference, why should we object to this? Or are you saying we should not and all moralities are equivalent? If they arent equivalent, then how is this possibly subjective?

              6. Ben, you haven’t replied to my question, what causes wellbeing besides a brain state?

                That would be because I’m rejecting outright your proposition that the goal of humanity should be the maximization of a particular category of brain state.

                Indeed, I’m going even further than that: I’m rejecting the proposition that there can even in principle be a single goal of humanity.

                You may well have your own goal of maximizing a particular category of states within your own brain. But you have no more right to maximize any given category of states within my brain than Torquemada had a right to save people from Hell and send them to Heaven. As Torquemada put it, what is a (relatively) short period of earthly torment if it should save the soul for eternity? And how could you possibly argue against that? After all, wouldn’t you, for example, set somebody else’s broken bone (assuming you knew how) despite the immediate agony if it meant saving that person from a lifetime of disability?

                We have millennia of experience demonstrating the full depth and breadth of the horror that ensues when one puts the Golden Rule first and foremost like that. “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” In more modern times, we’ve figured out that, yes, it’s generally good to follow the Golden Rule, as it’s the basis of pretty much all cooperative endeavors from barn raising to global commerce to charity.

                But far more important than even the Golden Rule is the principle of personal autonomy — of the right of refusal, of informed consent, “No means, ‘No.'” Maybe you really would be happier after Torquemada tortured you into accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior and thus gaining eternal salvation in Heaven. But it’s still up to you to decide if that’s the case, and still your right and responsibility to be able to make the worng choice.

                As to what morality is…that should be obvious by now. It’s no more and no less an effective strategy (in the sense used by Game Theory) for an individual operating within a collective society. A strategy in which the society imposes its will upon the individual is catastrophic for the individual and offers no positive incentive to the individual to cooperate. A strategy in which the individual parasitizes the society creates great incentive for the society to eliminate the parasitic activity, perhaps even without regard to the associated cost to the parasite. But a strategy that maximizes every individual’s opportunity for personal success, however each individual chooses to define success…that’s the ultimate morality. And, of course, there’s give and take involved; you’re going to have to sacrifice some of your own effort to the good of others and the whole, but, in return, you get the massed help of others and the whole as an effective force multiplier that makes possible goals otherwise unimaginable.

                Cheers,

                b&

              7. I think you are more concerned than i am with the idea that an objective morality is in somewhat totalitarian, and anti-liberty, or that an objective morality is going to be imposed on you by a Torquemadian Sam Harris. But I suspect this is not the case, in general the autonomy that you argue for is indeed very important, but the reason I believe it is important is that an increase in ones autonomy results in their greater wellbeing (note that many people would get rid of some degree of autonomy willingly in order to increase wellbeing in other ways). In which case, I doubt that an objective morality is going to burden people with a longer list of necessary restrictions than we currently have in america or other countries in the west. It may even decrease the governmental impositions, so I do not think that this is a worry that is consistent with the evidence. I may be wrong about this, but given our human nature I think autonomy is a core source of human wellbeing.

                Moreover morality is usually a guide for what one SHOULD do, not what one HAS to do, so a science of morality would inform choices and say what is best, but not necessarily impose them, especially if wellbeing is greatest in a society that favors a high degree of liberty. This is similar to a science of medicine where patients have options, and can forgo the best line of treatment if they so desire.

                You say that morality is “an effective strategy”, or a strategy that maximizes every individual’s opportunity for personal success, however each individual chooses to define success…that’s the ultimate morality. I actually fully agree with this and what I think people mean by success generally means wellbeing. Which does not mean that wellbeing is the same for everyone–we dont all have the same brains–we share a human nature, so many things that cause wellbeing are likely to be similar (enjoyment of food, sex etc) but we also have differences, so what causes wellbeing will differ from person to person at least to a degree.

                One thing im not sure I understand is that if you believe that morality is subjective, then how you can come to talk about how one morality is better than another. If we take your definition of an effective strategy, then this morality is clearly NOT subjective, some strategies work better than others for maximizing personal success. Stoning for adultery does not work well for personal success, protection of individual liberties does. So are you sure that you believe morality is not an objective study? That there are better and worse ways to run a society, and that people ought to do the ones that work best? Just because the science of morality does not create absolutes, but relies on statistical probabilities, and differences in human preferences does not mean that is in subjective.

                Thanks for the ongoing replies and the dialog.

              8. Which does not mean that wellbeing is the same for everyone–we dont all have the same brains–we share a human nature, so many things that cause wellbeing are likely to be similar (enjoyment of food, sex etc) but we also have differences, so what causes wellbeing will differ from person to person at least to a degree.

                …and yet you still think it’s meaningful to discuss wellbeing as objective and something that can and should be universally maximized?

                I mean, your description of wellbeing could practically be the very dictionary definition of, “subjective”…and how could you even in principle determine what a person subjectively desires better than asking the person? If you decide that the person likes vanilla better than chocolate but the person vehemently insists that chocolate is far superior, what objective measure could possibly be superior to what the person is reporting?

                You could argue that the person is lying, sure. But how’re you to know that the person isn’t actually deriving more pleasure from the perversion of the lie than from your hypothetical isolated measurement of the relative pleasures? And any further attempts to second- and triple-guess that sort of thing must, of necessity, fail to the same sort of self-referrentially recursive obstacles that define the Halting Problem and the uncountability of the reals and so on. You’re trying to square the circle; you may well come up with a really good approximation, but the effort is inevitably doomed to failure from the outset.

                When the ultimate yardstick for what you’re measuring is the person’s own subjective interpretation, then any attempt at objectivity is ultimately inferior to the subjective.

                b&

              9. Excuse the length, I thought your last reply was especially interesting.
                Yes I think the fact that people differ in what they enjoy is not inconsistent with objectivity in any way. Just as there are facts about one off historical incidents there are facts about particular beings. And I think that humans tend to take pleasure in the same types of events, so I expect the similarities to be far greater than the differences. There aren’t many who enjoy stabbing their eyes and eating their feces.
                When thinking about why differences don’t disqualify a study of wellbeing as a scientific topic, I think medicine provides a useful analogy. Different patients can and are treated differently according to the different diseases, genes and peculiarities of their illness. Does this differentiation and varied treatment processes mean that medicine is not a science? To me all that it indicates is that people differ, and that the science is harder. We can use individuals particular sets of genes to provide different treatments that are effective for different people. We do not say that evolutionary biology is not a science because the species differ, I see no reason to say that wellbeing should be subjected to this either.
                I take your question about vanilla ice cream as an indication that you think not that the study of wellbeing can’t be scientific, but merely that it does not have the tools at the moment to do this. I agree, the measures we have now are crude. Does that mean that it is not a potential science? I would go further and say that it is already a current science albeit an undeveloped science… psychiatrists have been treating wellbeing in the form of depression for a while now, and positive psychology is a full fledged field.
                As far as measuring the weight of the lie vs the chocolate and the vanilla, if you imagine a perfect simulation of a persons brain, and run all three scenarios, the joy of the lie the joy of the vanilla and the joy of the chocolate, the simulation could tell you which option led to greater wellbeing.
                There has been no mathematical proof showing that we can’t understand how the brain functions, or how wellbeing functions, until that occurs I will wait for a disproof. Even if it were true and approximations were all we could get, that doesnt mean morality is not a science. Quantum mechanics is limited to not knowing exactly the position and the velocity of a particle. Yet no one doubts that quantum mechanics is a science. it just means that our knowledge has a potential limit. This has not been illustrated for wellbeing and even if it had, using the logic “we can’t know everything about X therefore Y is not a science” would disqualify quantum mechanics as well as wellbeing as potential scientific topics.
                I do not necessarily agree with you about the yardstick for ones subjective interpretation. We know that human memory is prone to errors, it may remember an experience as better than it really was. A “subjective” state (personal seems the better word) may be better or worse than the person remembers it to be, and so their reporting of it is potentially less accurate than a simulation of it. The state may also be not fully communicable by the person, in which case a more rigorous analysis could make up the communication deficit.
                I agree with your point that when you are trying to measure something sticking closest to it is best, but then again we don’t measure doors with THEMSELVES, we use a ruler, this allows for the quantification, communication and universalization of a term like length.

              10. I take your question about vanilla ice cream as an indication that you think not that the study of wellbeing can’t be scientific, but merely that it does not have the tools at the moment to do this.

                No. My point is that we already have the ultimate tool to answer the question, and any other tool you might propose must, of necessity, be a mere approximation that cannot even in principle surpass the simple tool we already have.

                Why is it so hard to simply ask people what it is that they want for themselves? Why must you and so many other philosophers try to discern what people want — or, worse and far to common, not discern but decide for.

                b&

              11. Ben did you not read the last part of my post? I address why it is important to use a different measurement than self report of a personal experience, and do not agree that a self report is ultimately the best way to measure something (imagine using subjective reports of length rather than measuring tape to install a door in your house).

                “I do not necessarily agree with you about the yardstick for ones subjective interpretation. We know that human memory is prone to errors, it may remember an experience as better than it really was. A “subjective” state (personal seems the better word) may be better or worse than the person remembers it to be, and so their reporting of it is potentially less accurate than a simulation of it. The state may also be not fully communicable by the person, in which case a more rigorous analysis could make up the communication deficit.

                I agree with your point that when you are trying to measure something sticking closest to it is best, but then again we don’t measure doors with THEMSELVES, we use a ruler, this allows for the quantification, communication and universalization of a term like length.”

                You again seem to be very concerned with other people telling you what to do. Well they already do and they already have, and they will continue to do so. The government makes countless laws you have to follow.
                Assuming that a science of wellbeing will create more or less impositions is a premature conclusion, and isn’t consistent with most utilitarians views on the matter. Mill the most famous utilitarian of all wrote a book titled “On Liberty”….Totalitarianism or even mere greater imposition does not necessarily follow from a science of ethics. And a subjective ethics does not favor an ethical system that promotes liberty over a totalitarian one.

              12. Ben did you not read the last part of my post? I address why it is important to use a different measurement than self report of a personal experience, and do not agree that a self report is ultimately the best way to measure something (imagine using subjective reports of length rather than measuring tape to install a door in your house).

                I thought you already agreed that what we’re measuring is subjectivity itself? So how on Earth would you expect to get objectivity out of the subjective?

                But never mind that — it’s entirely irrelevant to questions of morality on the societal scale. The sorts of objective measurements you’re handwaving at would be of use to psychologists and anthropologists and the like within their respective fields of study, but they add absolutely nothing whatsoever to the question of how to structure society. The particulars of what people want don’t matter; what matters is that they have the freedom to pursue their goals up to the limits of impinging on others, and that society is flexible enough to support those goals, whatever they may be.

                You again seem to be very concerned with other people telling you what to do. Well they already do and they already have, and they will continue to do so.

                And so I should just shut up and let you decide what optimizes my own wellbeing?

                And you think this is advancing your argument…how…?

                b&

              13. I thought you already agreed that what we’re measuring is subjectivity itself? So how on Earth would you expect to get objectivity out of the subjective?

                As far as I can tell the term subjective refers only to personal perceptions and desires. As long as these are existent things, then they do not scientifically deserve to be treated differently from other scientific entities. They are merely personal scientific facts, and hence they are objective. If I want to eat cake tonight, and I really do, that is an objective fact about me. I don’t see any room for subjectivity as a different realm of facts, what would that even mean? Statements of subjective experience are true or they are not. They are not some weird third sort of entity, that gets treated differently from other facts. So I don’t think it is a problem, scientists already measure personal facts.

                The particulars of what people want don’t matter; what matters is that they have the freedom to pursue their goals up to the limits of impinging on others, and that society is flexible enough to support those goals, whatever they may be.

                If you have a subjectivist view of morality, there is no reason to prefer this over any other, since morality is just an opinion. You have not addressed this–I suspect because its damning to your idea–but I have brought it up several times and it should concern you.

                As for science not informing policy, this is also empircally not true, it already has, it continues to, and I suspect in the future if things go well the societal structure will be more scientific, not less.

              14. As far as I can tell the term subjective refers only to personal perceptions and desires. As long as these are existent things, then they do not scientifically deserve to be treated differently from other scientific entities. They are merely personal scientific facts, and hence they are objective.

                I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to carry on a conversation with somebody who, in a single paragraph, redefines, “subjective,” to really mean, “objective.”

                As for science not informing policy, this is also empircally not true, it already has, it continues to, and I suspect in the future if things go well the societal structure will be more scientific, not less.

                You’ve gone waaaaay beyond “science informing policy.” Your entire thesis is that the prime function of society is to optimize a certain class of brain states.

                b&

              15. If you can tell me what subjective means, other than personal thoughts and experiences a person has, im all ears. I think many people conflate the two meanings of subjective as personal experience with subjective as something that cannot be true.

                Im also still awaiting the reasons you have for preferring say an american ethical system over that of boko haram. Since you believe morality is subjective. If you are committed to the subjectivity of morality in order to be consistent you must admit the taliban, nazi germany and stalinist russia are no better than any other society.

        2. And what is a “judgement call” anyway? Magic?

          Firstly, if our collective “judgement call” was to sacrifice a virgin every year, would that make it OK? If so, then morality is little more than an arbitrary popularity contest, and effectively becomes meaningless. If not, then people appealing to judgement calls are no different from people appealing to god when their actual reasons come from elsewhere. In which case, they’re intellectually cheating.

          Secondly, fobbing morality off to a judgement call is such a lazy cop out, no different from saying living things work by vitalistic energy sources or animating souls. Moreover, it’s defeatist: “I can’t think of an easy answer to these hard questions – or don’t like the ones that come to mind – so I will claim they cannot be answered in principle.”

          “Judgement callers” aren’t much different from people who believe that the human mind is just so radically different that normal physics and materialistic matters don’t apply. The appeal to “judgement calls” without examining their content is just appealing to a black box and assuming it’s correct.

          Jerry had one out of three right when he brought up reason as a benchmark, as philosophy is too full of bunk to credit as a viable source of ethical argument. Maybe ethics isn’t a scientific field – though I’d hate to think what ethics would be like without an empirical anchor to keep fanciful theories from drifting away from reality – but reason is a close enough candidate.

          1. [off-topic] Hi reasonshark, could I draw your attention to a comment I made on the David Barash group selection post? (13 June, comment #23) You seem to have a fairly good grasp of the issues there. I tried to get your attention by replying to one of your posts there, but since you didn’t reply I thought maybe you don’t tick the notification box. Thanks

        3. These are not judgement calls. If wellbeing is measured in terms of neuroscience then there is no judgement call or subjectivity whatsoever.

          Note you’re own if. That’s the judgment call; that’s where preference enters into it. You’ve decided that your preferred goal is amount of neural activation. But if that’s not someone else’s goal, they won’t share your moral reasoning.

          1. Wellbeing is a brain state ( or brain states) so if you want to say that there is some sort of wellbeing outside of brains, you will have to use some sort of other example like a computer. The judgement call isnt here, this is just the facts.

            If you mean that choosing wellbeing as a source of morality is a judgement call, you have a better case there, but I dont think its all that worrisome. Discussions of morality always tend to rely on some state of wellbeing, and wellbeing really seems to be the only common variable in discussions of morality, even when the entities are made up like god wellbeing is still the thing cared about.

            Fields of science have to choose what they study, chemistry studies atoms and molecules, biology studies living organisms. Medicine studies human bnodies and minds, and a science of morality I think will ultimately just be a study of wellbeing in conscious creatures. Saying this is a judgement call is sort of like saying studying atoms is a judgement call that chemists make. Yes, I guess it is, but who cares? If we want to know about atoms, that is what we have to study. If we want to know about morality, we have to study wellbeing.

  14. Often we judge other people as lacking in moral behavior when often it may be the case of other self interests removing or replacing their moral conclusion. The politician can be an example of this in the stand taken on issues. An example might be the refusal to raise the federal minimum wage for many years knowing full well the damage this does to people and the economy in general. The position taken is based completely on who contributes to the politician’s campaign chest and cancels any moral argument to do otherwise. The politician most probably will also profess to being a very religious individual.

  15. but as I engaged in debates with theists over the years, I saw that they were continually trespassing onto our turf with truth claims on everything from the ages of rocks and miraculous healings to the reality of the afterlife and the revivification of a certain Jewish carpenter.

    This is rather strange when you consider that Shermer himself used to be a “fundamentalist Christian” (source Wikipedia).

  16. “Jerry A. Coyne eviscerates NOMA as “simply an unsatisfying quarrel about labels that, unless you profess a watery deism, cannot reconcile science and religion.””

    Generally all deistic philosophies contend that in some way or another morality is written into the “code of creation”.

    But varieties of deism do not agree on how this is done. Ask a Sikh how this is done and you will get a different answer than if you ask Thomas Paine. (Sikhism is a purely philosophical religion with no claim to special revelation or miracles. But it believes the will of God can be discerned from the study of nature.)

    If it qualifies as “deism” than that apophatic theology of Paul “Ground of Being” Tillich has a lot of moral substance. His writings were a strong influence on Martin Luther King, especially his book “Love, Power, and Justice”. PT has pretty definite notions of what the moral implications of being in harmony with the cosmic Ground of Being are.

  17. Shermer & Harris do stomp across what should be the properly defined NOMA lines (between “decidable” empirical scientific knowledge vs “undecidable” normative philosophical belief) as opposed to the science vs religion line drawing Gould did in his 1999 framing of the notion, which has rightly drawn piles of criticism (including by Coyne) since religions tend to carry all sorts of science claims along with their moralizing, an argument I attempted to clarify last year in the “NOMA Revisited” piece http://www.twowordculture.com/tip/files/NOMA-Revisited-2014.pdf (I goofed in the piece once though in alluding to Brit William Clifford as an “American”, will correct that snafu when I incorporate the argument into larger #TIP coverage in due course.)

    1. I disagree that there are or should be ‘properly defined NOMA lines.’ Claiming there’s some subject that religion shouldn’t discuss is a claim that you know what sorts of revelations deities could and could not give. You don’t know that. Hypothetically, deities could very well reveal decidable empirical things. If we take the claims of religion seriously, there is no subject hypothetically outside the bounds of religion. No boundary. The only way you can get any sort of NOMA framework going is to not take the claims of religion seriously. Now, I might happen to agree that deity claims are (provisionally/scientifically) wrong, but I think its really crappy and lop-sided philosophy for one side (my side!) to take the atheist position as a premise in what is supposed to be a science/religion framework that is acceptable to both sides. The only way such a thing would be acceptable to the religion side is if you fooled them or confused them about the assumptions NOMA rests on.

  18. Fremer’s new article doesn’t impress, and it ends with a glib cop out. As he writes:

    “If science takes away humanity’s primary source of terror management [a religious belief in an afterlife], will existential anguish bring civilization to a halt?

    I think not. We do live on – through our genes, our loves, our friends and our contributions (however modest) to making the world a little but better today it was yesterday. Progress is real and meaningful, and we can all participate.”

    I’m sorry, but we do not “live on” after our death. The party goes on, to use Christopher Hitchens’ phrase, for your family and friends, but you’re asked to leave. That’s what is causing terror in the hearts and minds of religious people, and the terror won’t go away with your assurance that their loved ones are going to survive, at least for a little while.

  19. Re:

    Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which has gotten good reviews.

    From a brief synopsis, I read that he ‘praised’ human ability invent technologies which subdue the planet and other species. That sounds as anthropogenic as can be; and as we are in massive overpopulation overshoot due to our success is appropriating net primary production. ( solar embedded and active energy) Water,soil, and air pollution are byproducts of our success.

    If anyone read the book, please correct the synopsis if it’s wrong.

    1. Read the book.
      It is good source of condense information about different aspect of human evolution that you can find in other anthropology related texts.
      It is definitely not anthropocentric glorification of humans.
      Forget the synopsis.
      If you want better information – visit Harari’s personal web site: provocative, to the point, fun to watch.
      His work goes along very well with Robin Dunbar’s “The human story”, who concentrated on different aspects of anthropology (biometrics) describes evolution more traditional way. They complement each other, better to read both of them.
      I hope I helped.
      Regards.

  20. Maybe I’m just being simple about it, but I think morality can be explained, at least in principle, by genetics and socialization. And though we aren’t anywhere near understanding the details, I think in broad strokes it works. And since genetics and socialization can both submit to scientific analysis, then the claim that science can explain morality may not be unreasonable.

    1. Morality is the emerging product of our psychology, social behavior, and biology broadly construed, and thus in principle, subject to scientific investigation and explanation, as is the morality of all other animals.

      However, in practice, when we do things that are either moral or immoral, we at least partly rely on our subjective judgement, fears, biases, (dismal) risk assessment capability, emotion of the moment, not to mention insufficient information about the situation we are facing, which all together influence our behavior and skew it from the one objectively moral path (if such exists).

      1. With little modification, we could say exactly the same thing about scientific truth in general. If this is an argument against moral objectivism, then it must equally be an argument against any kind of objectivity, because that is ultimately what the argument is criticizing. I think the only pertinent lesson to draw from all this is that we’re not perfect (or even very good) at ethics.

        1. I agree with both you and Scientifik. Humans exhibit “bounded rationality” (per Herbert Simon). But note that the only reason we can reach this conclusion is because of science.

          That practical situations differ from theoretical ones isn’t surprising; it happens everywhere. We are what we are. But that doesn’t obviate the possibility of learning what that actually is. And, over time, and will sufficient education, we can do better.

        2. “If this is an argument against moral objectivism, then it must equally be an argument against any kind of objectivity”

          I don’t think I can agree with this, as we definitely can establish things that are totally objective, such as that smoking cigarettes increases one’s likelihood of getting cancer.

          But when we consider our morality, things are getting much more trickier, for reasons I stated above, and also because it’s difficult to draw a clear-cut line between moral and immoral behavior in many situations.

          Consider for example this hypothetical situation: you’re a single parent of a 6-year-old child, your own parents had already passed away, and thus the responsibility for the child rests entirely on your shoulders. Now, you witness a dangerous situation on the street in which a car is about to hit an unsuspecting passerby/stranger. Do you run to the rescue of the person if there’s a 95% chance you’ll die? How about 80% chance, or 60%, 40%, 20%, 1%… Would it be moral to risk your life and orphaning your child if the attempted rescue carried with it a very high personal risk? At what point would it be immoral not help the stranger?

          1. You are not framing this question in a way that casts doubt on the objectivity of morality. All you are saying is that it is a very difficult problem that requires probabilistic reasoning. This in no way indicates that this is not an objective scientific matter. Nor does it matter whether or not an example is clear cut or not, many thinks in the universe are not clear cut, this just means that we don’t understand them very well. If you measure something as EITHER MORAL OR IMMORAL in morality you are likely to have problems. The correct way to think of it is, which action is MORE MORAL. This better captures the quantitative nature of moral acts… They lie on a continuum.

          2. I don’t think I can agree with this, as we definitely can establish things that are totally objective, such as that smoking cigarettes increases one’s likelihood of getting cancer.

            But if you are implying that being hard to establish renders something non-objective, then that conclusion doesn’t follow from your premise. You can’t simply flip the logic around. A lot of things that are objective are nevertheless extremely hard or even impossible to establish, from the big questions of the universe that may never be answered, to simple facts that are lost forever because someone failed to spot them in the first place. Conversely, I find it easier to establish, say, my subjective tastes in music or literary genres than in objective facts like what neural impulses are pulsing through my head right now.

            Moral questions like the one you pose are hard to answer because we haven’t yet figured out what kinds of measurements to take, and in practice we’d probably need looser heuristics, guidelines, and case studies to get definitive answers. But going to extremes suggests pretty strongly that the answers are hazy and hard to pin down rather than outright beyond our ken. We’d be pretty certain, for instance, that not saving someone’s life where there’s little to no personal risk would be heinous, and we’d be pretty certain that pointless suicide and orphaning with no corresponding life saved would be a terrible action.

            What’s unacceptable is chalking up the decision to a “judgement call”. Even if that’s what it comes to out of sheer everyday practicality, it’s still a copout as far as an intellectual understanding of the phenomenon goes, akin to not doing any maths research and trying to guess complex equations on the fly.

    2. “Why do we have the values we have” is a very different question from “what values ought we have.” ‘Genetics and socialization’ is an answer to the first question. It doesn’t answer the second.

  21. “But if we are not going to use science to determine meaning and morals, then what should we use?”

    Pragmatics like the “Universal declaration of rights”, liberalism and democracy. It’s merely managing meaning and morals.

    What science can tell us about moral disagreement is the different networks that are triggered in our brains. It cannot tell us which moral preference is objectively true.

    Of course science can be of great help to manipulate people to let them make the “preferred” choice. I personally hope that this isn’t the thing Sam Harris and Michael Shermer are aiming for.

  22. This point was originally made my Sam Harris, not me. But I think it bears paraphrasing:

    What does it mean to say science cannot inform our ethics? It means that when we are at our most intellectually honest, when we are most open to evidence, and to revising our views in order to improve them–at that moment we are unfit to answer the most important questions about human life.

  23. I agree with the idea that one can check one’s values for factual adequacy (for example, if one thinks one should use the death penalty for a crime because it is supposedly a deterrent, you can check that assumption). However, there are still values that *we create in order to live together*. Thus there are likely to be several “optima” (to speak metaphorically) and so the higher order trick is to allow people to find where they want to be and live with others (and all of us) in a way that is personally appropriate. This “metacultural” idea is the hardest thing to do – as it is very boot-strapppingly paradoxical.

    A combination of the “neuromorality” stuff with the capabilities approach of Nussbaum and Sen might be promising. I think the former has some merit, but is too individualistic. I don’t, however, know, how N. and S. just mentioned *decide* which capabilities are necessary to include. It too is done by “factual investigation” but also once again presupposes some nature of the good, etc. as well. (For example, that pain is in many circumstances to be avoided, etc.)

  24. Part of the problem, is that regardless of what source one claims is capable of “determining meaning and morals” — it will have to use the scientific method.

    I tell you that the answer is: chocolate. You tell me “no, that’s not right.” But unless you shook a Magic 8 ball, you used the scientific method to determine whether or not you believed my answer was correct.

    Take any methodology, personal revelation, dream, whatever as the source, and in order to determine whether or not you got the correct answer, you’ll have to use the scientific method.

    People thought for a loooong time that there could not be a way of accurately telling how hot or cold it was, because that was totally subjective (what we think of as 40°F is warm to an Alaskan in winter, but cold to a Southern Californian in summer) — until we actually devised thermometers.

    Now, we can say it is 40°F outside — whether or not that is warm or cold is a matter of subjective experience, but we agree on the temperature.

    Perhaps “meaning” or “morality” will be like that. We may discover some numeric scale that we can all agree on, but will still debate on whether something is good/bad regardless of the numeric scale.

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