Thursday, April 8, 2010

Morals, Religion, and Facts

Here is an interesting talk given by Sam Harris at a TED conference earlier this year. He is advocating that science has something useful to say about moral values. He asserts that religions don't have a special claim to knowledge which excludes science. This is an interesting point to explore:

He goes on to confront his critics in a posting on the Project Reason web site. Here's a bit from that:
Everyone has an intuitive “physics,” but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter), and only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. Everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much intuitive morality is wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective wellbeing) and only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal wellbeing. Yes, we must have a goal to define what counts as “right” or “wrong” in a given domain, but this criterion is equally true in both domains.

So what about people who think that morality has nothing to do with anyone’s wellbeing? I am saying that we need not worry about them—just as we don’t worry about the people who think that their “physics” is synonymous with astrology, or sympathetic magic, or Vedanta. We are free to define “physics” any way we want. Some definitions will be useless, or worse. We are free to define “morality” any way we want. Some definitions will be useless, or worse—and many are so bad that we can know, far in advance of any breakthrough in the sciences of mind, that they have no place in a serious conversation about human values.

One of my critics put the concern this way: “Why should human wellbeing matter to us?” Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and profoundly stupid questions. No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying. Without being able to stand entirely outside of a framework, one is always open to the charge that the framework rests on nothing, that its axioms are wrong, or that there are foundational questions it cannot answer. So what? Science and rationality generally are based on intuitions and concepts that cannot be reduced or justified. Just try defining “causation” in non-circular terms. If you manage it, I really want hear from you . Or try to justify transitivity in logic: if A = B and B = C, then A = C. A skeptic could say that this is nothing more than an assumption that we’ve built into the definition of “equality.” Others will be free to define “equality” differently. Yes, they will. And we will be free to call them “imbeciles.” Seen in this light, moral relativism should be no more tempting than physical, biological, mathematical, or logical relativism. There are better and worse ways to define our terms; there are more and less coherent ways to think about reality; and there are—is there any doubt about this?—many ways to seek fulfillment in this life and not find it.
I like this attack on moral relativism. I remember having a philosophy class in which the professor essentially shunned me because I took the view that morality is objective and not "relative". I never bought that cultures can have radically different moral "values". Values are not purely subjective and infinitely malleable. I'm willing to admit that good and bad are not objective in the same way that the number of sheep in a pen is. But temperature only became clearly objective when a thermometer was developed to measure it. I see no reason why some contraption can't be built which will make objective measurements of "good" and "bad". (OK, I'm willing to admit that it may take millennia to invent such a contraption. But I see no reason to think it is impossible. It is just very, very hard because our grasp on moral concepts is so very weak and moral values are so incredibly complex.)

As for the Hume's statement that you can't get an ought from an is. That is a very useful remedy for a lot of silly moralizing. But I side with Harris in thinking that this truism it isn't etched in stone. A couple of hundred years ago people would say you can't get a colour from counting. But today, the best agreement about objective colour comes from machines that count frequencies. And those, like myself, who are partially colour blind and liable to get into arguments about "the colour we now see" are willing to bow to the objectivity of the measurement. The science is compelling.

The problem of getting an ought from an is derives from the complexity of a moral judgement. If you listen to the lecture by Harvard's Michael Sandel about "when killing is justifiable", you get an idea of how complex it is. A maxim such as "Thou shall not kill" is a good first approximation, but no civilization lives by that maxim. There are justifiable killings: killing during war, pulling the plug on people in persistent vegetative states, and degrees of killing from manslaughter to second degree murder to first degree murder. There are inadvertent killings when a vaccine is released with the knowledge that for some genetically susceptible people, the drug can have an "adverse effect" and kill them but this is acceptable in order to get the benefits of herd immunity from a mass innoculation. Think about it: to manufacture a car is to decide to agree to a certain amount of killing that will take place as a result of car accidents.

I don't have a good understanding of how you get the ought from the is, but I do believe it is possible. In my mind, the early scientists didn't know how their investigations would give them control over nature, but from their early attempts they knew it was possible and could honestly expect to have enormous control over natural forces. Their early assumptions about the degree and kind of control overshot what is truly possible, but their intuitions were sound. The famous scientific determinism of Laplace is a good example of overconfidence (from Wikipedia):
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
I love the way Harris moves from the give-and-take of theoretical discussion to put the facts on the table to show how silly the relativist position truly is:
On a related point, the philosopher Russell Blackford wrote, “I’ve never yet seen an argument that shows that psychopaths are necessarily mistaken about some fact about the world. Moreover, I don’t see how the argument could run…” Well, here it is in brief: We already know that psychopaths have brain damage that prevents them from having certain deeply satisfying experiences (like empathy) which seem good for people both personally and collectively (in that they tend to increase wellbeing on both counts). Psychopaths, therefore, don’t know what they are missing (but we do). The position of a psychopath also cannot be generalized; it is not, therefore, an alternative view of how human beings should live (this is one point Kant got right: even a psychopath couldn’t want to live in a world filled with psychopaths). We should also realize that the psychopath we are envisioning is a straw man: Watch interviews with real psychopaths, and you will find that they do not tend to claim to be in possession of an alternative morality or to be living deeply fulfilling lives. These people are generally ruled by compulsions that they don’t understand and cannot resist. It is absolutely clear that, whatever they might believe about what they are doing, psychopaths are seeking some form of wellbeing (excitement, ecstasy, feelings of power, etc.), but because of their neurological deficits, they are doing a very bad job of it. We can say that a psychopath like Ted Bundy takes satisfaction in the wrong things, because living a life purposed toward raping and killing women does not allow for deeper and more generalizable forms of human flourishing. Compare Bundy’s deficits to those of a delusional physicist who finds meaningful patterns and mathematical significance in the wrong places (John Nash might have been a good example, while suffering the positive symptoms of his schizophrenia). His “Eureka!” detectors are poorly coupled to reality; he sees meaningful patterns where most people would not—and these patterns will be a very poor guide to the proper goals of physics (i.e. understanding the physical world). Is there any doubt that Ted Bundy’s “Yes! I love this!” detectors were poorly coupled to the possibilities of finding deep fulfillment in this life, or that his overriding obsession with raping and killing young women was a poor guide to the proper goals of morality (i.e. living a fulfilling life with others)?
I'm a Ted Bundy in that I don't see the colours that others see. But I've learned -- through science -- that I'm defective and have to adjust my understanding. I have to accept that my inner experiences are out of kilter with the objective world around me. I don't get the privilege of declaring myself a "relativist" with my own choice for reds and greens. Science has developed tools to identify people with my condition and have developed a theory that explains why my experiences are deviant. I accept that. I don't argue for a relativist/post-modernist idiocy that "every interpretation is equally 'privileged'". Science has something valuable to say about my colour perceptions. I believe science has something equally valuable to say about my moral perceptions and the moral values of my community.

To show how crazily ideological the moral relativists can be, Sam Harris provides this example:
As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy (after all, “Who decides what is a successful life?”) At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. She holds a degree in genetics from Dartmouth, a masters in biology from Harvard, and a law degree, another masters, and a Ph.D. in the philosophy of biology from Duke. This scholar is now a recognized authority on the intersection between criminal law, genetics, neuroscience and philosophy. Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?

Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing wellbeing—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.

She: But that’s only your opinion.

Me: Okay… Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human wellbeing?

She: It would depend on why they were doing it.

Me (slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head): Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, “Every third must walk in darkness.”

She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.
I hope I never live in this woman's "community". I have no love for people who can this blindly accept injustice as "just another lifestyle choice". Values and morals are real for me. They aren't just "picked up" from a culture or created on the fly. They are objective, real, hard truths. Very difficult to nail down and to satisfactorily "objectify" via some technological mechanism, but still very, very real.

No comments: