10 comments on “an addendum

  1. Okay, let’s say you have enough data to create your rational moral code. Now it is time to design your algorithm, or your atheist bible, if you will. The first thing you have to do is to decide upon the objective of the algorithm. Will you attempt to duplicate the action of evolution, and maximize the genes you pass on to future generations? Or perhaps you will just want to just maximize the probable benefit to your own well-being. If you want to maximize the benefit to your own well-being, you will have to decide how much of that is material wealth or comfort, and how much to weigh some more intangible benefits. Is your objective to maximize your own well-being, or will you also favor your immediate family, or do you want to benefit all of society equally?

    So, already, before you even begin, you have to make some moral judgements. You will have to do it without benefit of the rational basis, which you are only now attempting to create. Do you see the futility of this endeavor?

  2. whether a science of morality could be reduced to an algorithm, i have no idea–i kind of doubt it–perhaps some helpful algorithm could be found…daniel dennett has argued that the evolutionary process is actually an algorithm–if so, it would be an algorithm central to biology–but biology itself is not an algorithm, is it?

    but regardless, the objective of a science of morality would be to identify behaviors and attitudes that reliably increase personal well-being, as well as identify behaviors and attitudes that will reliably detract from personal well-being. what i think you’re getting tripped up over is the supposed necessity of a clear cut definition of well-being. my response to this is very similar to sam harris’s:

    “…consider by analogy, the concept of physical health. The concept of physical health is undefined…it has changed over the years….Notice that the fact that the concept of health is open, genuinely open for revision does not make it vacuous.” (excerpt from the transcript of his ted talk, found at http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html)

    our surrounding environment–especially our social environment–puts constraints on what personal well-being can mean for a human–and i’m predicting that scientific research will support my claim that the optimal most stable form of well-being we can currently achieve–especially considering the large scale challenges that our species is now facing–requires, among other things, a concern for the well-being of the species as a whole.

    hopefully, this clears things up. but i strongly suggest watching that ted talk. and on a side note, if you haven’t discovered the ted talks yet, i’d highly recommend spending some time at that site. you don’t have to agree with my views on morality at all to realize it’s awesome!

    p.s. i’d also like to point out that a science of morality would also be applicable to the well-being of families, organizations, nations, etc. but always with its root focus being the well-being of the individuals that these groups consist of.

  3. I still say that by choosing personal well-being as your criterion, you have made a moral choice. As an example, if that was your basis for all moral decisions there would never be a case where you would sacrifice your life for someone else. If you are dead, game over. Personal well being is no longer possible. Whereas, the criteria of natural selection could, for example, lead to a mother sacrificing her life for one of her children. That could help to propagate the mother’s genes by allowing her child to survive. Or, a warrior may sacrifice his life if it would prevent his band (of reasonably close relatives) from being killed off by the enemy.

    I am not saying there is anything wrong with your moral choice, just that you have made one, and it doesn’t have a rational basis.

    As far as the Sam Harris talk is concerned, I was not impressed. For someone who claims that everything should be based on rationality, he commits a lot of logical fallacies. I kept waiting for him to back up his assertion that science can tell us what ought to be, not just what is. It never happened.

    He starts out by saying that corporal punishment in schools is clearly based on religion. Is it? Well, there is something in the Book of Proverbs that talks about disciplining one’s own children. It says nothing about schools, so Harris’ complaint about public humiliation of the child doesn’t really apply. That’s a straw man argument, and is a fallacy. Then I expected him to talk about the science that shows that corporal punishment is bad. Nothing. Instead he says something like “now really, does anybody actually think this is a good thing?” There is another fallacy – appeal to incredulity. It’s the same kind of argument that religious believers use when they say “does anybody really think the universe could come about without a creator?” I’m sure Harris wouldn’t let that kind of argument pass from a religious believer. Why does he think it is all right to use himself? And why are you giving him a pass?

    I suppose there were some scientific studies about corporal punishment. I dont know. They may have concluded that children who were punished in school were statistically more likely to have some condition or other. They would not have concluded that corporal punishment is bad. If they did, that would not be science. Science does not draw conclusions like that.

    • I don’t think the idea of self-sacrifice (as in sacrificing one’s life) is necessarily at odds with human well-being. as humans we have a much broader definition of our own being than is possible for any other form of life on earth. in particular, our existence extends beyond our actual biological functioning, in two possible forms (and please don’t make the mistake of thinking that i’m suggesting anything supernatural in either case). one of these forms is memory–we ‘live on in memory’ as they say (though ‘live’ is obviously too strong a word). this is literally the memories that people have of us. and we exist in some sense in this (non-conscious–and ultimately non-living) form as long as there is anybody left who remembers us. we might be the only species whose existences are extended in this way–but i wouldn’t be surprised if it’s possible for other primates as well.

      the other form of extended existence that is an option to human beings is what we refer to as ‘our legacy’. this is a project we can begin for ourselves while we’re still alive. but the project might also be started by others either pre or posthumously. we alone on this planet are able to exist indefinitely (as legacy), long after any actual memory of us has died. and the project of one’s legacy can even be continued far into the future by the likes of historians. given this possibility of some form of continued existence (no matter how drastically different from actual life), it is not hard to connect acts of even the most purely altruistic self-sacrifice back to the aim toward personal well-being (which i suppose calls the existence of pure altruism into question–which is fine with me).

      [edit] i’ve just now realized that i haven’t actually addressed the examples of sacrificing one’s life that you’ve provided. the examples you gave had more to do with genetic imperatives than idealistic ones. in such cases i would argue that there is a biological analogue of the dynamic i have just described. a mother’s sacrifice of her life for the good of her offspring can be an instinctually driven attempt at preserving her genetic legacy. therefore the ‘personal’ in ‘personal well-being’ must be more broadly defined even on a purely biological level than it is in its common usage, and therefore is actually somewhat less restrictive in its roll in definining human morality than one would initially suspect.

      in reference to the rest of your comment: i don’t think it actually matters whether the passage in in the book of proverbs that’s in question actually mentions schools. to me, the main point seems to be that the bible condones beating children. and the fact that it does–in any setting–tends to support policies such as corporal punishment. as for scientific evidence of the negative effects of corporal punishment, just cut and paste the following search terms into google [“corporal punishment” psychology] (minus the brackets) and you’ll see that there’s plenty.

      your assertion that this doesn’t mean that corporal punishment is bad, since “science does not draw conclusions like that” is simply begging the question.

      [edit] i said above that only humans could have a legacy, but on second thought, that’s inaccurate. we alone can grant a legacy (to ourselves or others) and that legacy will only be intelligible to other humans–but certainly we can grant a legacy to beloved pets or subjects of research like coco the ape.

  4. If you are capable of defining being dead as being well or thriving, then I am afraid that your theory is not falsifiable. Any possible result would only confirm your theory in your own mind. It is the same thing as a religious person being able to explain all possible events or outcomes as God’s will. There is no possibility of falsification; therefore it is not science.

    Now back to Harris. I should have pointed out that the whole issue about corporal punishment being a religious idea is a red herring (another fallacy). If you wish to demonstrate scientifically that corporal punishment is bad, then you should be able to do it without stating where the idea came from. It would be just as bad or good an idea if it came about because of folk wisdom, astrology, or whatever. The only reason for Harris mentioning it is to grind his anti-theistic ax. But, having introduced the red herring, he really did make it into a straw man because there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that kids should be punished in public. That was one of Harris’s objections, the so-called public humiliation, not just the beating part of it.

    When I say science doesn’t draw those conclusions, I am not begging the question. I am only using the accepted definition of science. Science is a method of discovery whereby one makes observations, develops hypotheses, tests the hypotheses and makes more observations. There just simply is no way to observe “good” or “bad.” Good and bad are judgements we make about the facts we observe. If good and bad were facts we observe, then we could all recognize it when we see it, and we just don’t. Sorry.

    • the well being of one’s memory or legacy would be something separate from and secondary to one’s well-being as a living organism. a person who knowingly sacrifices their life for either their ideals, or to save someone else’s life (whether it be their own children, someone else’s, or a grown stranger) may be weighing the well-being of their memory or legacy against the probability of a diminished well-being in life as a result of not sacrificing their life in a situation that seems to request it of them. would a person rather die a martyr or hero, or live with the question, “why didn’t i stand up for what i know to be right?” or “why didn’t i save that boy?”, and live also with the knowledge that others may be asking themselves the same question?

      but honestly, i imagine that situations where the well-being of one’s legacy would outweigh even the diminished well-being of one’s life would actually be pretty rare. and situations where one would favor the well-being of their memory (for those who have no reason to believe they will leave a legacy) would probably be rarer still.

      but there’s another much simpler explanation of this kind of behavior, that might also explain why this type of thing is more common than one might expect. the person willing to give their life in such a way might be expecting to achieve a much higher level of well-being in an after-life.

      all of the above can be studied emperically. one could check the validity of my idea concerning legacies and memories through interviews with people who had expected to die as a result of some idealistic or heroic act, but did not. and i think it would be very interesting to find out what percentage of ‘altruistic suicides’ (as i’ve heard them referred to) are committed by people who believe in an afterlife where such behavior would be rewarded. and actually, i wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘afterlife’ explanation proved to be a sufficient explanation of altruistic suicide, and my complicated theory about it proved to be unnecessary. [edit] it’s occurred to me though, that my legacy/memory theory may still apply rather well to the scenario where a human parent knowingly gives their life to save their child.[end of edit]

      [another edit]i also meant to say that, now that i’ve given the matter some thought, i have doubts about the genetic roots of any such behavior. and finding examples of altruistic suicide in nature would be problematic, given the difficulty in determining whether any ‘sacrifice’ an animal might have made of its life was made knowingly. and i believe it’s the knowing part that’s important here.[end of edit]

      so back to harris: harris would be likely to point out where the idea came from, not just to “grind his anti-theistic ax”, but because the whole point of his talk is to say that science would make a better source for moral authority than any religion. so his comment was actually relevant. and urging us to beat our children with rods–at all–whether in public or not, seems to me, to be enough to provide some ammount of support for corporal punishment. so i really can’t at all see how harris’s argument could be a red herring.

      and i hate to be a dick about this, but yes you are begging the question. even if your definition of science–even if any or even all current definitions of science include that it cannot make moral judgments, it is precisely these definitions that i am arguing against. to simply say, “well you’re wrong, because that’s how it’s defined!” is obviously begging the question.

      and it is not necessarily true that “if good and bad were facts we observe, then we could all recognize it when we see it.” there are many, many observable facts about the world that you might not recognize if you saw. for instance, personally i can’t tell the sex of most animals just by looking at them. horses; no problem, and some dogs too. but other than that, i’m either not knowledgeable enough to determine male or female just by looking, or such a determination is just not easily made by anybody just by looking. so here we go, i’m sayin it: morality may be somewhat similar to animal sex.

  5. Harris’s stated intention was not to show that science is better than religion. It was very explicitly to show that science could tell us what ought to be, not just what is. That claim does not necessarily imply that any other source of morality is wrong about any particular subject. In fact, there is nothing in that statement alone to presume the science would find an error in any religious or other moral belief. The digression about the book of proverbs was a red herring, and I think he introduced it because he really had no strong arguments to prove his point.

    You may have trouble telling the sex of some animals, but we all believe that they objectively have a sex that can be discovered in some manner – by watching them mate, by killing and dissecting them, or whatever. If we did that, we would all agree on the sex of a particular animal.

    If you can define or imagine some process by which the truth or falsehood of a moral belief could be demonstrated so that everybody could agree, then you have a possibility of making it into a science. Otherwise, not.

    • why would everyone have to agree? if we used that criterion for all of science, we’d have to throw evolutionary theory (and therefore most of modern biology) out the window since there are tons of people who don’t agree with it. the same is true in medicine as well–physics too. as far as i know, every currently existing branch of science responds to the incoherent opinions of irrational people in the same way–they ignore them. why would a science of morality be conducted any differently?

      and we seem to be in agreement on how to tell the sexes of various animals. i’m glad we could find some common ground. my point in bringing it up was to show that the fact that something can be known for sure doesn’t mean it will be immediately obvious to us, which is what you seemed to be implying when you said, “If good and bad were facts we observe, then we could all recognize it when we see it…”

      and as for the sam harris issue; ok, i realize the sentence, “science can answer moral questions,” does not make any mention of religion–but this has been one of harris’s main purposes in addressing this issue all along…but really i’m tired of talking about sam harris’s ted talk–i liked it, you didn’t, and i think we can leave it at that.

  6. We don’t have to agree about the theory but we have to agree about the facts if we want to do science. Not all cosmologist agree on the big bang theory. They all agree that there is an observed redshift in the light from distant galaxies. Not everybody accepts evolutionary theory, but they do have to agree on the fact that there are fossils that have been discovered. Things like that. If you can’t tell the difference between a fact and a theory, you have no business trying to do science.

    • i understand what you’re saying now, but i don’t see a problem here. its not all that difficult to find general consensus on whether certain behaviors, values, and attitudes will or will not lead toward well-being. will raping and pillaging do the trick? it seems pretty obvious that it wouldn’t, right? will the holding of socially positive attitudes like empathy, compassion, and a base-line level of unconditional respect lead toward that aim? will, valuing things like open and clear communication, a spirit of cooperation, or a willingness to admit fault tend to help move us toward greater well-being? all of this seems somewhat likely, doesn’t it? and i think it would seem that way to any reasonable person. studying the effects and limitations of such values and dispositions would be one of the tasks facing a moral scientist. and through such efforts we could hopefully move from saying that this seems to be true, to saying that this is true to such and such extent given such and such conditions.

      and i think there’s plenty of common enough ground for us to start out with. there are certain moral values for which we already have a nearly global consensus (at least amongst the more economically developed countries) e.g. issues such as literacy, slavery, care for the elderly and disabled, genocide, and so on. notice that when reading that list, you don’t even have to think about which of those we (you and i and multiple billions of others) are all for or against. these days, “pro-slavery” sounds about as strange to us as “pro-cancer”. and “anti-literacy” makes about as much sense as “anti-rainbow”.

      and of course, there very well could be some group of people somewhere that disagrees with all of the moral claims in the preceding paragraphs. in that case we’d want to study them to find out what leads them to hold these opposing views. how does their understanding of the world differ from ours? is it a more or less factually accurate understanding of the world than our own? basically, we’d want to find out whether their beliefs were worth taking seriously–whether their values were based in reason, or based in some cultural mythology and/or a misunderstanding of how the world works (which we’d be able to recognize as misunderstanding thanks to the natural sciences).

      and, come to think of it, there are certain facts about the world, discovered by science, that run counter to our intuitive understanding. for instance, most people intuitively believe that when two objects of differing weight are dropped from the same height, that the heavier of the two will land first. but we know through experimentation that this is not so. there’s also the monty hall problem, which sam harris may have mentioned in his talk (i can’t remember–i know he’s mentioned it somewhere). but the monty hall problem is a perfect example where people–well educated people–will argue vehemently against what is actually an undeniable fact. in a situation like this, all one can do is make the data available and hope for the best. there’s no reason to believe that there won’t be certain facts concerning morality that will be just as counterintuitive.

      in the end, the truth is not determined by consensus. the truth is the truth whether anybody at all believes it or not.

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