Science can answer moral questions…or maybe not
Posted: 04 December 2012 08:50 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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On this topic I’ve just viewed Sam Harris’ Ted talk ‘Science can answer moral questions’, which seems to lay out a 20-minute version of his basic argument. If I’ve understood it right, I’d say the persuasiveness of his argumentation doesn’t entirely overcome a fundamental weakness.


In a phrase, Harris’ position appears to resolve to: science can address moral issues because morality is inextricably tied to human happiness and well-being, and the whole history of science shows that human well-being is amenable to scientific inquiry. In front of a sympathetic audience he’s able to imply that this fundamental premise is axiomatic; i.e., self-evident.


The problem is that it’s not an axiom, it’s an assertion. And, worse, it’s an assertion that is beyond proof.


The idea that human life should be organized around personal well-being and happiness, and that society and morality should function in the service of that, is not self-evident. In the broad sweep of human history it’s almost certainly a minority viewpoint. And the natural world provides scant evidence that such a view is so embedded in the fabric of reality as to be axiomatic.


Any number of societies have organized around radically different goals, with moralities to match. Even in the history of western civilization this is true. Christianity just a few generations ago presented a completely different view of human life, in which pleasure, happiness and even simple well-being were suspect and to be sacrificed in favor of well-being after death. Under this morality, encouraging the maximum of human happiness in this life would have been seen as putting the much greater good of the well-being of the soul in danger. Harris posits a moral continuum between well-being before and after death, but this form of morality places those two in opposition to each other.


Today we see this morality of self-abnegation resurgent in the Muslim world. In extreme forms, as anyone who reads the newspaper knows, this becomes a death cult in which personal well-being is very far down the list of moral ‘goods’, and in which the destruction of others’ personal well-being is even considered a moral ‘good’ in its own right.


Along with these and other possible examples Harris’ morality of the greatest well-being for the greatest number really has to take its place as an assertion about human life, not a certainty.


It may seem self-evident to us, brought up in a culture in which this idea has (slowly) taken hold over the last couple of centuries, but we simply have no way to prove it. One reason it seems so obvious is that it’s so closely associated with science, and science has so obviously revolutionized human life. And, in doing that, it has shown that the universe we live in is amenable to rational inquiry in a way our ancestors never suspected. So it all seems to hang together: the universe clearly favors the scientific method and everything science seems to be telling us points to Harris’ morality as ‘correct’. Given what we know through science, what are the chances that the universe is the creation of a vengeful, demented deity who spent his time pitting desert tribes against each other, only spoke to a few lice-infested brigands (forgetting entirely to mention other continents or their inhabitants, bacteria, electricity, and a host of other useful facts), and then went peevishly silent, awaiting - but why wait? -  the last day? Probably pretty low, but the problem from a philosophical point of view is that we can’t be sure. There’s absolutely no way to assign a zero probability to such a view of reality. It might - god help us - be right!


The implications are more than philosophical. As Sam Harris himself points out, in a world without empty spaces between cultures, these alternate assertions about human life become increasingly mutually exclusive and inimical. How can we accept that a plane ride away women are forced to walk around in bags, as Harris mentions explicitly? The reverse is also true: self-abnegation becomes impossible when your neighbor’s wife feels free to enjoy a summer afternoon by the pool clad only in a bikini. As we all get pushed ever closer together our alternate views of human life inexorably strive to deprive each other of oxygen and claim the whole of human existence for themselves.


Personally, I believe Harris is right. It’s just that there’s still an act of faith involved. Harris hasn’t eliminated that even though his claim to science makes it seem so. And so the problem of multi-culturalism is still before us.

[ Edited: 04 December 2012 11:09 PM by todobear]
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Posted: 16 January 2013 06:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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todobear, I think yours is a thoughtful post, one of the better ones I have read on this forum, but with all due respect, I think you need to read the entire book first and not base your criticism on a single TED talk alone. Below is Dr. Harris’ thesis which from my point of view appears quite logical and well reasoned.

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds— and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

Harris, Sam (2010-10-05). The Moral Landscape (p. 195). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The purpose of the book is to show that a science of morality, predicated on the value of well-being, would be on no weaker footing than physics, chemistry, medicine, or any other branch of science that must rely on similar, axiomatic assumptions. By analogy to the rest of science, I have argued that the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone can be presupposed— and upon this axiom we can build a science of morality that can then determine (yes, “determine”) myriad other human values. How much should humanity in the twenty-first century value compassion, for instance? And how should this value be balanced against other competing priorities, like bureaucratic efficiency? These are hard questions— but a completed science of human flourishing would tell us exactly how and to what degree compassion conduces to the well-being of individuals and societies. Will we ever have a completed science of human flourishing? Probably not. Does this mean that there isn’t a right way to maintain compassion while seeking bureaucratic efficiency (or several right ways)? Does the extraordinary complexity of human life prevent us from seeing, at a glance, that certain societies have got the balance between compassion and efficiency entirely wrong? No. (See: Germany, Nazi).

Harris, Sam (2010-10-05). The Moral Landscape (p. 202). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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Posted: 25 January 2013 06:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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todobear - 04 December 2012 08:50 PM

On this topic I’ve just viewed Sam Harris’ Ted talk ‘Science can answer moral questions’, which seems to lay out a 20-minute version of his basic argument. If I’ve understood it right, I’d say the persuasiveness of his argumentation doesn’t entirely overcome a fundamental weakness.


In a phrase, Harris’ position appears to resolve to: science can address moral issues because morality is inextricably tied to human happiness and well-being, and the whole history of science shows that human well-being is amenable to scientific inquiry. In front of a sympathetic audience he’s able to imply that this fundamental premise is axiomatic; i.e., self-evident.


The problem is that it’s not an axiom, it’s an assertion. And, worse, it’s an assertion that is beyond proof.

IMO you have to acknowlede the existence of value states in mental life, that some are better or more inherently benign than others. But if you regect that why do you choose one mental state (something you like (find value in) for example marriage) rather than another (e.g. torture.)? So we can have a reductio ad absurdum argument. The opposite to acknowledging value would entail there is no basis for differentialtion and rational choice between alternatives. But peoples actions are non randon, and align (with various degrees of success and understanding) towards welfare. Therefore we can assume they find value in it, its what they buy with their time.

The idea that human life should be organized around personal well-being and happiness, and that society and morality should function in the service of that, is not self-evident. In the broad sweep of human history it’s almost certainly a minority viewpoint. And the natural world provides scant evidence that such a view is so embedded in the fabric of reality as to be axiomatic.

I think it is embeded just as are the laws of physics. But just as we never always knew the inverse square laws we never always knew of the the ‘curvature of moral space’ (to stretch an analogy).

Any number of societies have organized around radically different goals, with moralities to match. Even in the history of western civilization this is true. Christianity just a few generations ago presented a completely different view of human life, in which pleasure, happiness and even simple well-being were suspect and to be sacrificed in favor of well-being after death. Under this morality, encouraging the maximum of human happiness in this life would have been seen as putting the much greater good of the well-being of the soul in danger. Harris posits a moral continuum between well-being before and after death, but this form of morality places those two in opposition to each other.

I think that you arte implying that because there are various “understandings” of morality, cosmology and anthropology any one which contradicts any of them is bound to be wrong. That is an non sequitir. There were flat earthers, and thay have been contradicted without any logical scandal.

Today we see this morality of self-abnegation resurgent in the Muslim world. In extreme forms, as anyone who reads the newspaper knows, this becomes a death cult in which personal well-being is very far down the list of moral ‘goods’, and in which the destruction of others’ personal well-being is even considered a moral ‘good’ in its own right.

Maybe it is a wrong minded cosmology and anthropology causing misaligned conduct. After all if the map is wrong what hope have the travellers?

Along with these and other possible examples Harris’ morality of the greatest well-being for the greatest number really has to take its place as an assertion about human life, not a certainty.

Ok but there is falliblism. Not all knowledge has to be irrefutibly infallible. For instance I may know I have evolved, but alongside the skill causing the true belief there is an element of luck. We are not playing roulette, against all odds, but we are not gods either.

It may seem self-evident to us, brought up in a culture in which this idea has (slowly) taken hold over the last couple of centuries, but we simply have no way to prove it. One reason it seems so obvious is that it’s so closely associated with science, and science has so obviously revolutionized human life. And, in doing that, it has shown that the universe we live in is amenable to rational inquiry in a way our ancestors never suspected. So it all seems to hang together: the universe clearly favors the scientific method and everything science seems to be telling us points to Harris’ morality as ‘correct’. Given what we know through science, what are the chances that the universe is the creation of a vengeful, demented deity who spent his time pitting desert tribes against each other, only spoke to a few lice-infested brigands (forgetting entirely to mention other continents or their inhabitants, bacteria, electricity, and a host of other useful facts), and then went peevishly silent, awaiting - but why wait? -  the last day? Probably pretty low, but the problem from a philosophical point of view is that we can’t be sure. There’s absolutely no way to assign a zero probability to such a view of reality. It might - god help us - be right!

True but not all knowledge has to be infallible. See above!

The implications are more than philosophical. As Sam Harris himself points out, in a world without empty spaces between cultures, these alternate assertions about human life become increasingly mutually exclusive and inimical. How can we accept that a plane ride away women are forced to walk around in bags, as Harris mentions explicitly? The reverse is also true: self-abnegation becomes impossible when your neighbor’s wife feels free to enjoy a summer afternoon by the pool clad only in a bikini. As we all get pushed ever closer together our alternate views of human life inexorably strive to deprive each other of oxygen and claim the whole of human existence for themselves.

I think that one person answering that one is going to prove hard. But I think taht Sam’s book may prove to be a hub around which people, even religious people, can tentatively agree. Perhaps it is too anti religious to allow open consensus amongst radicals and public figures, but I think that the basic idea (happy marriage is better that torture) is going to be a winner. Perecisely because whether we like to believe it or not, we are forged byevolution and naturally find and experience the appeal of the family, sex and love etc.

Personally, I believe Harris is right. It’s just that there’s still an act of faith involved. Harris hasn’t eliminated that even though his claim to science makes it seem so. And so the problem of multi-culturalism is still before us.

Yes we have to act with faith to ambrace any empiricism whether is it objective or phenomenological. I mean without appeal to the empirical we cannot justify empiricism.

[ Edited: 25 January 2013 01:58 PM by Hypersoup]
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Posted: 05 February 2013 11:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Hi Guys (or Guys/Gals),


Cypher - thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right in calling me out on not having read the entire book. Embarrassingly, I still haven’t, though I intend to as soon as possible. That said, your two quotes from it seem to me to strengthen my point, or even make it for me, even if Dr Harris didn’t intend to. There are several slippery things that I think bear pointing out.


- Consciousness is certainly part of the universe of natural phenomena, yet its nature and position within that universe are so opaque that it would be fair to call it the second most abiding mystery of creation, after only the existence of the universe itself. That it and its states are amenable to the same kind of analysis that we use to refute the flat-earthers (to borrow Hypersoup’s analogy) is a stretch, to say the least.


-  Why ‘must there be right and wrong answers to questions of morality’? Because consciousness experiences happiness and pain? As a living being I’d like to think that, but proving that it is axiomatic is another matter.


- Even the binary division of conscious states which sits at the base of the assertion is suspect, it seems to me. If happiness and pain were really binary, we’d have no art, no music, and only the most rudimentary form of philosophy.


- Dr Harris says in your second quote: ‘The purpose of the book is to show that a science of morality, predicated on the value of well-being,....’. That seems to me to encapsulate the problem exactly. The value of well-being is the axiom from which everything else flows logically. I understand that he feels he’s shown it to be axiomatic in the passage you first quoted. I can only say that I find it far from proven. An axiom really should have the satisfying sense of certainty of something like ‘if a=b and b=c, then a=c’. I don’t think Dr Harris gives us that certainty. Like I said in my original post, that kind of certainty - if you want to base it in the natural order of things - should be provable by looking at that sphere. But, in the natural order as we know it, what evidence do we have of the primacy of states of well-being? The world we know is full of beings with various degrees and types of consciousness - all we can confidently say about them as a whole is that they seem to have a tendency to seek well-being, but the universe rarely seems to grant it!


If we want to assert that well-being will foster human freedom, happiness and dignity, this may be provable, even if only statistically. I certainly agree with it personally. But the whole statement has the weakness I first brought up: it all hangs together as an assertion about human life that doesn’t even concord with other powerful assertions that have been made by other societies, let alone by the natural world.


Hypersoup: ‘IMO you have to acknowlede the existence of value states in mental life, that some are better or more inherently benign than others.’ I can acknowledge the first part of your statement without acknowledging the second. I.E., Everyone can agree that consciousness is made up of mental states. In fact, without mental states there’s no consciousness. Whether some are better than others is less clear. What do we even mean by ‘better’? Is there anyone alive who hasn’t learned important positive things through pain and tribulation? We all long for more benign states. It’s even in the Declaration of Independence. But I’m not sure even Jefferson could have explained what the ‘happiness’ he wanted people to be free to pursue was, exactly. I want to be free to search for happiness, but I’m not so sure I’d want to be immutably happy, in the same way that the classic description of hell sounds way more interesting than wearing white and praising the creator in song for the rest of eternity.


My point, in response to yours, is that what we value is not binary, and is in fact very, very subtle. The economic argument you make (‘what they buy with their time’) seems to me to give absolute primacy to our present moment in history and the times we live in. It would be a stronger argument if it could be made of all times and societies, but it was precisely my point that that argument won’t fly because most human societies we know about haven’t believed what seems so axiomatic to us.


With regard to your analogies to physics, I have to say that I just don’t agree. The inverse square laws, the organization of the periodic table, the states of matter, whether the earth is flat or not - all these scientific questions are fundamentally different from questions about states of consciousness. The realm of science - at least until you get to the quantum universe - has a very binary structure when it comes to provability. Most things in science are either true or false. Whether we know if some scientific thing is true or false is usually just a function of how good we are at observation:  can we see small enough, or far enough, or often enough? To me, consciousness is wildly different.


Finally, when you refer to ‘wrong-minded cosmology’ you do realize, of course, that those who hold those views would say the same about you? It seems to me that the answer as to who is right has to lie somewhere outside the system we are talking about, and since I don’t personally believe in God - or that kind of god - I don’t see where the justification for that approach can come from.


Cheers and thanks for your responses.

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Posted: 06 February 2013 10:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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todobear, here are some more excerpts which I hope will address your criticisms and prompt you to read the entire book.


“Throughout this book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape”— a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving— different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc.— will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing. I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery.”


Harris, Sam (2010-10-05). The Moral Landscape (p. 7). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


“Let us begin with the fact of consciousness: I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings. Take a moment to think about what this would entail: whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is— it would seem, by definition— the least interesting thing in the universe. So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of human values and morality is not an arbitrary starting point. 8 Now that we have consciousness on the table, my further claim is that the concept of “well-being” captures all that we can intelligibly value. And “morality”— whatever people’s associations with this term happen to be— really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures.”


Harris, Sam (2010-10-05). The Moral Landscape (pp. 32-33). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


“Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science. Medicine can resolve specific questions about human health— and it can do this even while the very definition of “health” continues to change. Indeed, the science of medicine can make marvelous progress without knowing how much its own progress will alter our conception of health in the future. I think our concern for well-being is even less in need of justification than our concern for health is— as health is merely one of its many facets. And once we begin thinking seriously about human well-being, we will find that science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values, even while our conception of “well-being” evolves. It is essential to see that the demand for radical justification leveled by the moral skeptic could not be met by any branch of science. Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. Does this make science itself unscientific? If so, we appear to have pulled ourselves down by our bootstraps. It would be impossible to prove that our definition of science is correct, because our standards of proof will be built into any proof we would offer. What evidence could prove that we should value evidence? What logic could demonstrate the importance of logic? 18 We might observe that standard science is better at predicting the behavior of matter than Creationist “science” is. But what could we say to a “scientist” whose only goal is to authenticate the Word of God? Here, we seem to reach an impasse. And yet, no one thinks that the failure of standard science to silence all possible dissent has any significance whatsoever; why should we demand more of a science of morality? 19”


Harris, Sam (2010-10-05). The Moral Landscape (p. 37). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


“Many people seem to think that a universal conception of morality requires that we find moral principles that admit of no exceptions. If, for instance, it is truly wrong to lie, it must always be wrong to lie— and if one can find a single exception, any notion of moral truth must be abandoned. But the existence of moral truth— that is, the connection between how we think and behave and our well-being— does not require that we define morality in terms of unvarying moral precepts. Morality could be a lot like chess: there are surely principles that generally apply, but they might admit of important exceptions. If you want to play good chess, a principle like “Don’t lose your Queen” is almost always worth following. But it admits of exceptions: sometimes sacrificing your Queen is a brilliant thing to do; occasionally, it is the only thing you can do. It remains a fact, however, that from any position in a game of chess there will be a range of objectively good moves and objectively bad ones. If there are objective truths to be known about human well-being— if kindness, for instance, is generally more conducive to happiness than cruelty is— then science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviors and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning.”


Harris, Sam (2010-10-05). The Moral Landscape (p. 8). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


“If we were to discover a new tribe in the Amazon tomorrow, there is not a scientist alive who would assume a priori that these people must enjoy optimal physical health and material prosperity. Rather, we would ask questions about this tribe’s average lifespan, daily calorie intake, the percentage of women dying in childbirth, the prevalence of infectious disease, the presence of material culture, etc. Such questions would have answers, and they would likely reveal that life in the Stone Age entails a few compromises. And yet news that these jolly people enjoy sacrificing their firstborn children to imaginary gods would prompt many (even most) anthropologists to say that this tribe was in possession of an alternate moral code every bit as valid and impervious to refutation as our own. However, the moment one draws the link between morality and well-being, one sees that this is tantamount to saying that the members of this tribe must be as fulfilled, psychologically and socially, as any people on earth. The disparity between how we think about physical health and mental/ societal health reveals a bizarre double standard: one that is predicated on our not knowing— or, rather, on our pretending not to know— anything at all about human well-being.”


Harris, Sam (2010-10-05). The Moral Landscape (p. 19). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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Posted: 01 April 2013 11:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Sam Harris’s first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people—from religious fundamentalists to non-believing scientists—agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the primary justification for religious faith.
In this highly controversial book, Sam Harris seeks to link morality to the rest of human knowledge. Defining morality in terms of human and animal well-being, Harris argues that science can do more than tell how we are; it can, in principle, tell us how we ought to be. In his view, moral relativism is simply false—and comes at an increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality. Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of our “culture wars,” Harris delivers a game-changing book about the future of science and about the real basis of human cooperation.

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Posted: 27 April 2013 04:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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todobear - 04 December 2012 08:50 PM

The problem is that it’s not an axiom, it’s an assertion. And, worse, it’s an assertion that is beyond proof.

Aren’t all axioms assertions? Wiki states that “an axiom is a premise so evident as to be accepted as true without controversy.” When you begin any conversation about anything you technically have to start with one, or at least assume it. This is why there’s a problem of regress. The regress problem is when you realize that any claim, to be taken seriously, must be backed by a justification, either a priori or a posteriori. But that justification itself needs justification. And on, and on, and on presumably back to a point in which you can no longer go back. Science, as Sam has pointed out in lectures and his book The Moral Landscape, has axioms too: an acceptance of empiricism, an acceptance of logical coherence, parsimony, intellectual honesty, etc.

The questions we should resolve first before going any further are: (a) what constitues and what does not consitute an axiom, (b) is Sam’s focus on well-being an axiom? If the latter is answered with a “no” we should expand on why we think it isn’t.

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Posted: 09 May 2013 04:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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I am not sure about axioms in the philosophical sense. Isnt the word mathematical and philosophers borrrow it by analogy? I would argue if concern for welfare is not an axiom, it is rather an instinct built into our phenomenology. Harm ourselves seriously and valenced expereience lets us know it is not preferable. That is if we have evolutionary stable natures (both genetically and memetically or behaviouro-culturally). It is not we who are creating an ethics system, but rather (in some deep sense, although it is perhaps a mystery like evolution was, waiting to be discovered) something we are born into, even born ‘as’. Life has been selected, and ethical life is an adaptation just as are arms, legs and eyes. Is it no suprise thertefore that its essence is directed at the welfare (survival chances) or the organism. That is its function, so if we make it a self conscious goal we are in some sense disclosing the truth in full positivity (rather than ethically undermining our own sense of belonging in being). The ethical life is one that is selected naturally and artificially because of its production of health and flourishing. Hopefully selected in the heart (think of a Neitzchean “yes” to life) if not explicitally in biological reproduction.

I think that aim towards a yes, towards affirmative health, is the telological aspect of ethics as selected qua (in the capacity of being) a psychological trait, forged by and as part of evolutionary processes. It is (projectivity towards and production of welfare, fitness, health, flourishing) ethic’s “final cause”. For in having health in mind, in intelligent teleological strategy, the human flourshes and survives. Therefore if ethics has a function, and increases survival chances, which it surely does, it seems obviolus that mans teleological planning is part of the cause of it being selected by evolutionary forces.  Just as a cup is made for something, so (albeit this may well be unconscious to many of us) is ethics. let us drink from the cup of flourishing life!

Therefore the focal domain of ethics is properly this life, for it is a producht of a secular process - namely evolution. Just as legs and arms are secular adaptations so is the ethical, and it properly belongs in service of humanity just as do our arms and legs. Otherwise we instrumentalise life in the service of God, but that would be to rob it odf its dignity (its value in itself rather than for some other purpose). Because a world of value is where we life and function, if there is an ethical basis for choice (which there is) then it ought to be grounded in an uunderstanding of its cause and natural boundaries. The cause is evolution of a certain tppe of psycho social consciousness, and the domain is phenomenological being, life-in-the-world.

Perhaps in the range of axiomatic thinking we can say in deontic logic that that a priori good ought to be pursued, and a posteriori we apply that line of reasoning to the good as it is discovered (through primary intuition and comparison of valenced alternatives) in experience. What is good for us is life promoting, as we might expect if the phenomenon of ethicalally embedded consciousness (valenced, strategec, analytic, projective, caring being-in-the-world) is the product of evolutionary processes. Therefore science - philosophical and natural - can inform us a lot about ethics.

[ Edited: 09 May 2013 05:07 AM by Hypersoup]
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Posted: 11 May 2013 07:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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If one realizes that all meaning is biologically dependent, in other words what we believe and feel about the world as object is the direct result of the world as object/s affect/s upon us, meaning is that which this experience evokes from us. So, it would seem Sam Harris’s thinking that morality is derived directly from our biological natures is well founded, admittedly, when an evil deity gets involved or a mental illness, it can play hell with the out come, but the basic foundation of all meaning is our biological response to being in the world. The world in the absence of a biologically conscious subject is utterly without meaning, and can only be meaningful when that meaning is bestowed upon it by a conscious biological subject. So really, Sam is not only on the right track he is on the only track, there is no other way for meaning, for morality, to enter into the world or to inform a given civilization, society or individual but through the collective experience of our common biology, what we consider compassion for biological/human suffering is the foundation of morality, and social cohesion. The well being of our common biology is you might say, the golden measure of all moralities.

[ Edited: 12 May 2013 12:46 PM by boagie]
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Posted: 29 May 2013 01:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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queefsr4quitters - 27 April 2013 04:19 PM

The questions we should resolve first before going any further are: (a) what constitues and what does not consitute an axiom, (b) is Sam’s focus on well-being an axiom? If the latter is answered with a “no” we should expand on why we think it isn’t.

In response to these questions I might point out that in mathematics what is an axiom in one branch of the theory is not necessarily an axiom in other branches. For example the axiom that for every natural number n there is exactly one successor n+1 is an axiom in number theory, but not in set theory where one discusses differnt models of sets where one can derive from other axioms that they have the “successor” property.


Similarly I feel that the value of the “well-being” is an axiom when discussing if science has something to say about moral values; i.e. is it an assumption that one must subscribe to when following the arguments Sam Harris lays out. I think that one can indeed base a different morality in which the well-being of humans is not important, but the only basic moral value is e.g. the fulfilment of the will of a higher being whose will is not accessible to scientific methods and who wants all humans to be as unhappy as possible. In a morality based in that assumption science can indeed not make any statements about moral values.

Oh,and I see Sam Harris also says it is an axiom; copying from the quote of Cyphers first post in the thread:

By analogy to the rest of science, I have argued that the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone can be presupposed - and upon this axiom we can build a science of morality that can then determine (yes, “determine”) myriad other human values.

Then, of course, while it is possible to imagine a foundation of morality as the will of some evil higher being, the question is who want to subscribe to something like that?

Most religions people I know, when asked about their believes say clearly they believe because it makes themselves feel better, and they think it guides them to actions that improves the well-being of other people. So in the “meta”-level where one does not see the value of “well-being” as an axiom but as something that follows from other principles, e.g. “evolutionists” and religious people might not agree on their “axioms” on the meta-level, but most except some most unsympathetic persons will come to the conclusion that “well-being” is something that should be valued.

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Posted: 29 May 2013 03:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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A flight of the imagination is a wonderful thing, but, if it never returns to set its foot on firm ground it is at best useless, at worst it increases the suffering of the subjects involved. I fail to understand the difficulty here, we know that all meaning is subjective, that the world as object is entirely without meaning unless it has meaning bestowed upon it by a biological subject. So why is it difficult to imagine that the concept of morality, a meaning after all, is not biologically dependent. If this is established, then perhaps we can speculate as to what morality is concerned with, if not biology and its welfare. In fact a discussion of morality outside this realm would of necessity be nonsense, even morality considered in isolation is nonsense. It is all about the welfare of the individual in a biological community.

[ Edited: 29 May 2013 03:30 PM by boagie]
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The Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.
David Hume

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