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Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions - Dhamma Wheel

Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths. What can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
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Nibbida
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Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Nibbida » Mon May 03, 2010 6:38 pm

There's been mention of Sam Harris on this list before. In this TED talk he talks about science answering moral questions:

http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_sci ... right.html


What he says seems to be not too inconsistent with a Buddhist view. I'm reminded of the Buddha's advice to Rahula (Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta) where he says to look at actions, speech, and thoughts and to weigh whether it would lead to self-affliction, the affliction of others, etc., to examine this beforehand, during the action, and afterwards. It's "moral" decisions based on firsthand observation rather than dogmatic adherence to ancient texts.

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Ben
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Ben » Mon May 03, 2010 10:14 pm

Thanks Nibbida

I think I might have already posted that talk. However, its always good to revisit his works. Its also good to find other "fans" of Sam Harris here on DW.
kind regards

Ben
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

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Tex
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Tex » Mon May 03, 2010 11:25 pm

Sam Harris for president.
"To reach beyond fear and danger we must sharpen and widen our vision. We have to pierce through the deceptions that lull us into a comfortable complacency, to take a straight look down into the depths of our existence, without turning away uneasily or running after distractions." -- Bhikkhu Bodhi

"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." -- Heraclitus

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Pannapetar
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Pannapetar » Tue May 04, 2010 9:45 am

No, it can't!

Science can inform us about facts which relate to moral questions. Science cannot by itself answer moral question.

I usually appreciate the sober analysis of Sam Harris (I'm a long-time admirer), but this is clearly a piece of sophistry. Any philosophy fresher can identify it as such. Please note how Sam Harris subtly changes the message in the first minutes of the talk. He does not say that science can answer moral questions. Instead he says: "The separation between science and human values is an illusion,", "values are certain kinds of facts," and "there is no notion of morality that is not reducible to a concern about conscious experience." Even if we agree with all of these statements, it does not logically follow from any of them that moral questions can be answered by science.

What he is saying in essence, is that science can give us an informational foundation for value judgements. Duh! That's pretty uncontroversial I suppose.

There is another talk by Sam Harris related to this topic on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww

Cheers, Thomas

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Nibbida
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Nibbida » Tue May 04, 2010 2:11 pm

Thomas,

You may be right about that. I need to think about it more.

I think the entire talk hinges upon this connection he makes: "Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures." If you accept that the purpose of values is to enhance well-being, then you can evaluate which values lead to the greatest well-being. Notice that he does not say that science can give us values. He says that it can answer moral questions.

For example, there is a lot of research showing, unanimously, that a materialistic orientation is a train wreck in terms of emotional and social well-being. Conversely, I have not seen a single research study suggesting that materialism is good or even neutral for a person. So that would be the kind pf research Harris refers to in saying that it can help answer moral questions.

I am both fascinated by and skeptical of research, since it has both strengths and shortcomings. I personally don't need a study to tell me not to be materialistic. My firsthand experience with values like compassion, kindness, patience, mindfulness, generosity, equanimity, etc. is all I will ever need to continue practicing and developing them further. However, I find that having some quantitative data allows one to speak a little more objectively about it, like "See? We're not just making this up." It's easy for people to write off certain values as individual preferences.

Buddhism wisely advises people to take a close look and see for oneself whether practicing something like selfishness or generosity leads to greater well-being. However, if the person never takes a good look, they may continue for years, decades, or a lifetime without even considering a change. Having research to support the importance of a value makes it a little less easy to dismiss. In my experience, it makes a good teaching tool, a way to get a foot in the door, to persuade someone to make the initial effort to practice something enough to get over the hump and to the point where they start noticing the effects. In the same way, I find movies like The Dhamma Brothers to be very persuasive.

My understanding of Harris's point is that scientific methods can be used as a litmus test, a reality check, on which values lead to the greatest well-being. Even though that approach is fraught with it's own potential pitfalls, it allows an approach that is a little less subject to individual biases.

What do you think?

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Pannapetar » Tue May 04, 2010 3:33 pm

Nibbida,

With your permission I divide my answer into two parts: what I think about Harris' speech and what I think about the problem itself.

I think that Harris has an agenda. His speech is motivated by the desire to divorce morality from religion. This becomes clear if you read his book or view other interviews or debates with Sam Harris. Unfortunately, he proposes to replace religion with science as the foundation for morality. The argument he develops in favour of this suggestion is poorly conceived, to be frank. He is a good orator, so perhaps he can convince an audience, but I doubt that he can convince people with a minimal schooling in philosophy. First, there is no science of well-being or conscious states. People can disagree about what exactly constitutes well-being. Second, morality must weigh the interests of the individual against the interests of others or the community, a question which is not open to scientific investigation. Third, ethics does not really need a "foundation". It can very well stand on its own and it has been recognised as an independent (though certainly interconnected) branch of philosophy for as long as philosophy exists.

Now about the problem itself. To argue that science should provide the foundation of morality is absurd for two reasons: (1) ethics is neither an empirical science nor is it theorisable in any scientific or mathematical sense, (2) science is a (very) good servant but a (very) bad master and putting science into the master role is a really bad idea. I agree with Harris in only one respect, namely that moral statements are statements about facts, or -philosophically speaking- truth proposals. This amounts to what philosophers call moral realism. However, ethical propositions are a different type of statements. They are different from the truth-propositions we know from science by virtue of being non-quantifiable. This means that it is impossible to come up with ethical propositions that are always true or always false, or even to assign concrete truth probabilities to such statements.

Take for example the statement "killing is wrong". This statement is very often true, which is to say that it has a rather high truth probability. However, we can come up with scenarios where killing is justified. Think about self-defense or shooting a terrorist with a strapped bomb. Hence, moral statements must be seen in context and are dependent on the circumstances. This neither implies that moral propositions are relative nor subjective, but it implies that they are not quantifiable. For precisely this reason, it is impossible to formulate a scientific theory of normative ethics. It has been tried before in the history of Western and Eastern though, but it has never been accomplished.

Cheers, Thomas

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Nibbida » Wed May 05, 2010 8:09 pm


alan
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby alan » Thu May 06, 2010 2:36 am

Pannapeter,
You are assuming an extremely flip tone. Might be a good idea to take a deep breath or two.
Tell us when you write a book that can match Sam Harris, and I'll take you a bit more seriously.

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby alan » Thu May 06, 2010 2:49 am

And besides that, Dammit, you are encroaching on my territory! I thought I was the flip, arrogant guy here! :tongue:

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Ben
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Ben » Thu May 06, 2010 2:54 am

Hi Pannapetar

Dr Craig Hassad is another person who is likely to disagree with you.

51eN58mDJRL__SL500_AA300_.jpg
51eN58mDJRL__SL500_AA300_.jpg (14.67 KiB) Viewed 2025 times


He is senior lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at Monash University and a leading proponent of complementary medicine and mindfulness meditation-based therapies in medicine.
kind regards

Ben
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

(Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • •

e: [email protected]..

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Pannapetar
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Pannapetar » Thu May 06, 2010 3:21 am


alan
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby alan » Thu May 06, 2010 3:53 am

What could make you think I was hoping for a cheeky response?
Do you define everyone who is good at presenting his point of view as a Sophist?

You agree with him on many points. Ok. Let's start with that. Which of his points make the most sense to you?

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Nibbida
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Nibbida » Thu May 06, 2010 3:53 am


alan
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby alan » Thu May 06, 2010 4:06 am

After that maybe you can clarify your understanding of the difference between Morality and Ethics. They seem to be blurred in your post.
No need to write a book; a paragraph or two should suffice.

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Pannapetar » Thu May 06, 2010 5:50 am


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Ben
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Ben » Thu May 06, 2010 6:28 am

“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

(Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • •

e: [email protected]..

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Pannapetar
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Pannapetar » Thu May 06, 2010 7:55 am


Shonin
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Shonin » Thu May 06, 2010 8:03 am

Well said.

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Nibbida
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Nibbida » Thu May 06, 2010 4:46 pm


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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Postby Pannapetar » Fri May 07, 2010 1:25 am

Nibbida,

You are probably right about me not being well-informed about recent developments in psychology. My freshman prep course in psychology dates back more than 20 years now and I chose an engineering career afterwards. However, I just noticed we have both overlooked that the Wikipedia list contains an entry named "positive psychology". The well-being research that was mentioned previously is grouped under that term.

Still, I wonder how relevant this is to Sam Harris' talk. I'd say it is probably not very relevant. I'd rather like to hear what you and others think about the question whether science can answer moral questions.

Cheers, Thomas


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