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Apr 04 2013

Oh, boy, more people will hate me for this one

It’s my talk at Seattle Atheists, in which I dared to suggest that science is not a sufficient foundation for morality (although I do think truth/science are necessary for a reliable morality).

I kind of expect more hate mail from this one.

66 comments

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  1. 1
    Brett McCoy

    Who said it was? Of course, this still doesn’t mean religion is either. :-P

  2. 2
    Acolyte of Sagan

    I hate you for this one.

    NOT :-)

  3. 3
    Louis

    Nuance, PZ?

    Oh you disappoint me. It’s almost like you’re not a raging simpleton.

    Louis

  4. 4
    Louis

    ^ That was sarcasm for the uninitiated.

    Louis

  5. 5
    Chris Clarke

    Louis:

    ^ That was sarcasm for the uninitiated.

    Great. I love sarcasm.

  6. 6
    Gregory in Seattle

    Wonderful! I would have loved to see this live, but this is great, too. Thanks for getting this!

  7. 7
    Chuck

    Necessary but not sufficient? A philosophical distinction?

    I am very disappointed in you, PZ.

  8. 8
    PZ Myers

    No, that’s a SCIENTIFIC distinction, and as we all know, science doesn’t contain even a sliver of philosophy.

  9. 9
    cag

    Bowler, Stetson, Fedora, Baseball cap, Beanie, Beret, Mitre, Panama, Pith Helmet, Hard Hat, Straw Hat.

    Is that enough hat mail for you.

  10. 10
    magistramarla

    Ohhh goody! This means that PZ loves me, too.
    While I’m awed by science, was lucky enough to have a decent high school and college science education and am married to and the mother of science people, my mind and enthusiasm simply don’t wrap around math and science very well. I’m a humanities type of girl.
    I want to feel welcomed in Atheist gatherings, too.

  11. 11
    mikeyb

    I don’t know why this would be remotely controversial, unless you are a Sam Harris groupie.

  12. 12
    garlic

    I don’t know that it’s controversial – it’s basically a re-statement of the is-ought problem. Science is about the “is”, so on its own it can’t give you the “ought”.

    But it can certainly inform your decision about the “ought”, and especially about how to turn it into “is”!

  13. 13
    Richard Carrier

    Actually, science is philosophy. Science is nothing more than good philosophy with good data. That’s why it used to be called natural philosophy…even when Galileo, Gilbert, Newton and Lavoisier were busy creating modern science. The word “scientist” didn’t even exist until the 19th century.

    Most of what passes for philosophy today is bad philosophy. But it’s a false generalization to say that that characterizes all philosophy (even as it is now, much less as it could be). And science is absolutely dependent on philosophy (for its epistemology, politics, and ethics most obviously; and for its metaphysics, semantics, and ontology most inobviously).

    On how science lies at the bottom of all moral theory, see my chapter “Moral Facts Naturally Exist (and Science Could Find Them),” Loftus, ed., The End of Christianity (Prometheus 2011): 333-64, 420-29. I’ll send it to you.

  14. 14
    PZ Myers

    Uh, Richard…my comment in #8 was raging sarcasm.

  15. 15
    zibble

    Watching this now, totally psyched.

    I know this is a bit to ask, but do you have a transcript or something for the talk? I’m always wanting to share stuff like this with a friend who’s hearing impaired, YouTube autocaptions just do not cut it.

  16. 16
    mikeyb

    I would go as far as to say that science is the be all and end all of knowledge. All human inquiry is conjecture. Science presents us with testable conjectures which we accept because or until we come up with better conjectures that fit the same set of facts. With respect to fundamental understanding of nature religion, and yes even philosophy falls flat on its face, because it is speculation that isn’t testable. There is simply no way to find out if it is true or not. Yes I know there are untestable philosophical principles built into science like uniformitarianism and methodological naturalism, but we abide by them because they work time and time again.

    Morality is in a way both a form of knowledge and is not. It is a form of knowledge in the sense that we can step back and observe the alternate consequences of different moral systems on behavior, survival, happiness, you name it. For example, if we were studying ants, in a way we can study the consequences of slave making and non slave making ant societies. We can understand the pros and cons of each to whatever we choose to examine such as survival.

    With humans we can observe the consequences associated with various moral philosophical systems, e.g. utilitarianism, virtue morality, libertarianism, combinations of these and many others. The very fact that there isn’t one single universally endorsed philosophical system should be a strong clue than none exists. We can say like the trolley experiment, people generally think one kind of action is moral and another is not. We can say for example, a libertarian vs a utilitarian type morality would have such and such consequences. We can even say that certain moral systems are better or more right in terms of certain criteria we come up with. But like the ethics of chimp research, the morality of which is going to be defined by our overall ethical system we apply it to. One form of ethics asserts that human life is important above all, so chimp research is perfectly justifiable. Another broader set of ethics asserts that it is cruel and unusual so we should not do it. How in the heck is science ever going to solve this dilemma? If it can’t how can we assert that there is there is an objective universal set of ethics we should all be compelled to obey.

    Therefore I am compelled to conclude that ethics is not a form of knowledge, because it is not something we can determine with the scientific method and expect to get broad consensus on, in the sense that it is not follow a definable set of universal principles that things obey within their domains like objects seem to do. There will never be a universal ethics like there is a universal law of gravitation. Like gravity, the only universal ethics there could be, would be one that all humans obey, if ethics were a form of knowledge that we could say – yeh that is genuine objective scientific morality. The pursuit of objective morality is as much a pipe dream as the pursuit of god.

  17. 17
    Ichthyic

    Science is nothing more than good philosophy with good data.

    that’s like saying medicine is nothing more than proven herbology.

  18. 18
    Ichthyic

    And science is absolutely dependent on philosophy (for its epistemology, politics, and ethics most obviously; and for its metaphysics, semantics, and ontology most inobviously).

    …and this is like saying ANYTHING is dependent on politics and ethics.

    you complained of useless overgeneralizations?

    mirror dude.

    it took philosophy to develop the scientific method to begin with, but I STILL disagree that philosophy dictates the measure of science as it stands. It is its own thing, it is no longer a subset of philosophy.

  19. 19
    Ichthyic

    Morality is in a way both a form of knowledge and is not.

    morality is just like atheism; a conclusion, not a presumption, not an antecedent.

    this means in no way is it a form of knowledge, but it rather a conclusion drawn FROM knowledge.

    it is, by its very nature, ALWAYS subjective.

  20. 20
    Ichthyic

    …. agreeing with you IOW, in case it wasn’t clear.

  21. 21
    Ichthyic

    Uh, Richard…my comment in #8 was raging sarcasm.

    I think Richard knows that, actually. it doesn’t affect the point he was trying to make.

  22. 22
    zibble

    Actually, I probably won’t be sharing this, I think it’s really problematic. I’m 40 minutes in and it seems like the whole talk is based on a HUGE fallacy, which is a failure to consistently and coherently define what you mean by “science”.

    What I thought you were going to talk about is how “science” can mean different things, and one of the huge problems with discussing science is equivocation. When we’re talking about “science” do we mean the scientific community and its current views and authority? Or are we talking about a process of learning through empirical testing? When theists accuse someone of “scientism” (ugh, what a stupid word) it seems like they don’t understand the distinction.

    The horrible stuff you spend 40 minutes (and counting) delving into are examples of the poor morality of scientists, but they AREN’T examples of the efficacy of scientific morality. In fact, most were based on completely afactual cultural assumptions, like the inferiority of black people. I think you’re underselling the role of science in morality by failing to acknowledge that a scientific mindset allows us to give SPECIFIC, teachable reasons as to WHY something is wrong (as you do!), instead of “I dunno, it just seems bad, I guess”.

    I was hoping instead you’d talk about something along the lines of how “science” as atheists use the word is about more than the current scientific establishment. I think “science” in this sense is about a METHOD, where an idea has value proportionate to its objectivity. This method has value that extends beyond the sciences into nearly every aspect of life, at least in my experience.

    So of course we need a lot more than just scientists to investigate and discuss moral questions and we certainly shouldn’t just trust scientists to be our new Prophets. But I think these moral questions need to be founded in objective ideas (or at the very least, valued according to their objectivity) which is, I think, what Harris actually means when he talks about scientific morality. There’s a clear distinction there you don’t seem to acknowledge.

  23. 23
    Ichthyic

    can’t but agree with Zibble on this.

  24. 24
    Hammer of dog

    Good speech, PZ. And I love how you handled the “rift” and the “open a dialogue with the jerks” questions.

    On the equation “anti-religion + science = atheism”, perhaps it’s because I am one of the lucky ones who was raised in a non-religious household that I never even thought of atheism as being part of any equation. I just remained at my default state. My atheism is more of a constant than an equation. :-)

    When I had the power to think for myself, which my parents encouraged, I realized how silly religion was but was not “anti-religion”. Early on I was not aware of the continuing atrocities committed in the name of religion. I have become more and more anti-religion the older I get, so to me it feels like anti-religion = atheism + time^2. :-)

    I was amused the other day when I was asked how my parents taught me morals and ethics… and this was at an atheist meetup event. I replied that they taught me morals and ethics in the same manner as any other parents taught their kids morals and ethics, fortunately without the corporal part that far too many parents engage in and without any threats of hellfire, just realized threats of no dessert and early seclusion in the bed chamber for the remainder of the night. Apparently those aspects of child rearing that religion advocates are not necessary to instill morals, values, and ethics in a child. Who’d have thunk it.

  25. 25
    drewvogel

    I’m inclined to agree with zibble as well. Can anyone tell me what, other than science, is necessary for morality?

  26. 26
    John Morales

    drewvogel:

    Can anyone tell me what, other than science, is necessary for morality?

    Sure: the desire (and the ability) to attempt to adhere to some moral code.

    (Morality is more what one does and less about what one imagines one should do)

  27. 27
    drewvogel

    I found it. At about 32:15 PZ explains that answering moral questions also requires input from ethicists, humanists, sociologists, economists, and philosophers. I would say of that falls under science, broadly construed. That’s certainly Harris’s view in “The Moral Landscape”. Those questions about which animals is it okay to use for experiments are every bit as difficult as PZ says they are. But if those questions can ever be resolved, they will be resolved by science. Perhaps they can never be resolved (and in this particular case, that seems likely). But if there’s ever a clear and obvious answer to the question “Is it okay to use dogs in medical experiments?”, we will reach it by learning more about dogs. We stopped experimenting on chimps as a result of learning more about chimps. That is precisely how science determines moral values.

  28. 28
    Negathle

    No hate mail. In fact, if I wasn’t a poor grad student soon to lose her stipend to graduation, I would get you a tea set for brewing your evening tea: http://www.maryomalleyceramics.com/bottom-feeders.html

  29. 29
    cim

    drewvogel:

    But if there’s ever a clear and obvious answer to the question “Is it okay to use dogs in medical experiments?”, we will reach it by learning more about dogs.

    Learning more about dogs is only sufficient for an answer in terms of the goals of the moral system. You can learn as much as you like about dogs without learning if the goals of the moral system are correct.

    To simplify: goal 1 “the prevention of harm to humans” ; goal 2 “the accumulation of power to my group”. Science can advise holders of both goals on how best to achieve those aims, what moral stances those goals imply, etc. It can’t determine which of the two goals is the better one to hold, or if a third goal is better than both, because you get into an infinite recursion trying to define “better”.

  30. 30
    Michael

    Mmmh, nice talk. Still, I think that scientists acting immorally don’t discredit the whole of science. Just like atheists acting immorally don’t discredit atheism. Even just the golden rule would have prevented them from doing this.

  31. 31
    drewvogel

    cim, it depends entirely on what you mean by “science”. The proper goal(s) of morality is one of those issues which will require input from ethicists, humanists, sociologists, economists, and philosophers. But all of that is already a part of what I’m calling “science”, which includes any area of inquiry based on reason, logic, and empiricism.

    Construing “science” as PZ does in the video, it’s obvious to the point of being trivial that PZ is absolutely right. Science in that narrower sense is not sufficient for morality, but no one (including Harris) thinks that it is.

  32. 32
    cim

    drewvogel: I don’t think, though, that it’s possible through the scientific method or anything resembling it to determine what the proper goals are. Sure, ethics, sociology, economics, etc. are all areas which can and should use the scientific method, but that’s still answering questions within an initial framework. What experiment would say which of two goals of morality is better? (Ignoring all practical difficulties in running the experiment)

  33. 33
    PZ Myers

    I don’t claim that bad scientists discredit the whole of science. At several points I take pains to explain that I am most definitely NOT anti-science.

    But several of you are doing exactly what I deplored: you’re expanding the domain of science to encompass philosophy, ethics, sociology, and economics so that you can continue to claim that all you need is science. Well, sure, if you want to say that everything the human brain does is science, then science is sufficient.

  34. 34
    ChasCPeterson

    We stopped experimenting on chimps as a result of learning more about chimps.

    ?
    I doubt it. Feelings are much more important here than knowledge. Data don’t change people’s feelings. Other people’s feelings change people’s feelings.

  35. 35
    drewvogel

    ChasCPeterson, data most assuredly do change people’s opinions. Not in the narrow sense of figures on a print-out, but observation. Chimps are entitled to similar moral consideration as humans (but not the same) because chimps are in fact similar to humans (but not the same) in morally relevant ways.

  36. 36
    drewvogel

    cim, not all questions are answered by experimentation, even in science. Questions like that are decided by reasoned argument and debate.

  37. 37
    Brad Peters

    Science has few if any claims to determining morality (right from wrong), though as others have stated, it can help us objectively measure our efforts once a collectively agreed upon value has been determined, perhaps with the help of those fields that Myers correctly identifies. I do not think it is appropriate to label philosophers and economists as scientists.

    Science, as it is often understood, is a method of objective empiricism; it is often about looking at cause and effect relationships and breaking things down in reductionist parts in order to better understand the whole. Science deals with mechanisms and causes, whereas morality has to do with meanings (values). Humans are not objects – we are symbolic animals that invent morality within a collective community of minds based on the meanings and reasons that we value as a society. I talk about some of these issues here here and here

  38. 38
    cim

    drewvogel: Can you give an example? I’m having difficulty of thinking of a previous scientific issue that was settled (correctly) through reason and logic in the absence of experimental data.

    That said, I don’t think reasoned argument and debate will answer the question of “which moral goals are best” either. Logic can’t start from nowhere, so the starting point still has to be arbitrary.

    Brad Peters: philosophers, no. Economists, though, why not? They make theories with predictive power, and test and refine them based on observational data, simulations, and occasionally practical experiments. Well, some of them do, anyway. Seems fairly clearly a social science to me.

  39. 39
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    I think that wrt ethics, we have a situation analogous to the Incompleteness theorems. I think that you have to start with axioms about what is desirable:

    1)maximizing pleasure
    2)minimizing suffering
    3)maximizing efficiency
    4)sustainability
    5)fairness
    6)productivity
    7)stability/order
    8)progress

    and on and on. There is no unambiguous–let alone scientific–way to prioritize these “goods”, and they all lead to slightly different ethical emphases. Once you have a set of priorities, though, game theory and other “scientific” tools can (and have) help find rules for optimal ethics.

  40. 40
    Brad Peters

    Cim, I think you and I have different ideas of how the social ‘sciences’ actually work. I explain my position in these two videos: http://modernpsychologist.ca/psychology-theory-and-critical-thinking/

  41. 41
    David Marjanović

    you’re expanding the domain of science to encompass philosophy, ethics, sociology, and economics so that you can continue to claim that all you need is science.

    …um. Sociology and economics can (and should) be done as science. Sure, economics in particular often isn’t, but it’s not difficult to apply the scientific method to both fields.

    (I agree that philosophy, including ethics, is different.)

  42. 42
    drewvogel

    I’m definitely doing exactly what PZ deplores. And I understand: it’s an extremely broad interpretation of “science”, which makes it an easy thing for people to misunderstand. So if you’re not comfortable using “science” so broadly, that’s fine. In that case, science is not sufficient to determine human values. But no one thinks that it is.

    PZ’s view is that science (narrowly construed) is insufficient to determine morality, because social sciences and philosophy are also required. Sam Harris’s view is that science (broadly
    construed to include social sciences and philosophy) is sufficieht to determine morality. There’s a disagreement here, but it isn’t about the proper way of determining morality. It’s a purely semantic disagreement over what counts as science.

  43. 43
    Brad Peters

    Some people seem to think that Sam Harris’s view was an all encompassing one where philosophy and ethics is included in his view of ‘science.’ Can those of you asserting this view please find a quote to back up this claim? This is what he had said in his book the Moral Landscape:

    “Questions about values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, the effects of specific laws on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.”

    There are a lot of assumptions involved in this position. Kenan Malik does a very good job of dismantling Harris’ claims: http://www.kenanmalik.com/reviews/harris_moral.html

  44. 44
    Scientismist

    PZ:

    But several of you are doing exactly what I deplored: you’re expanding the domain of science to encompass philosophy, ethics, sociology, and economics so that you can continue to claim that all you need is science. Well, sure, if you want to say that everything the human brain does is science, then science is sufficient.

    Humans also lie to each other, and deceive themselves. That’s what’s so exasperating about defining the “limits to scientific knowledge” — what is science? And what can properly be called “knowledge” that can be excluded from science? Scientists (or at least some scientists) used to include Lamarkian inheritance and N-rays in “science”, but does that mean that the deception of self and others that was necessary to those concepts are integral parts of science? Deception is indeed a part of a lot of fields of human endeavor that would like to have a claim to be the source of moral and ethical thought. Feynman described science as a process of trying not to fool yourself — while realizing that you are the easiest person in the world to fool. Are philosophy, ethics, sociology, and economics NOT part of science, when they are done with care to avoid fooling yourself and others? In order to be separate fields unto themselves, must they include as a necessary caveat that their practitioners must be allowed to lie, if only just a little, to avoid the horrors of “scientism”? Must they be allowed claim as absolute truth, as does religion, things which they know darn well can’t be known to be even probable? Has moral philosophy learned nothing from the most crucial scientific finding of the 20th Century, that there is no such thing as absolute, perfect knowledge?

    You don’t have to claim that everything that the human mind does is science to be able to say that morality and ethics are not only informed by science, but are an integral part of science. “We OUGHT to act in such a way that what IS true can be verified to be so.” (Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values, 1956). (I would modify that to say that we should act so that what is true can be demonstrated to be probable; and I think Bronowski would agree.)

  45. 45
    zibble

    @33 PZ

    But several of you are doing exactly what I deplored: you’re expanding the domain of science to encompass philosophy, ethics, sociology, and economics so that you can continue to claim that all you need is science. Well, sure, if you want to say that everything the human brain does is science, then science is sufficient.

    Which is why instead of just saying “science” we should explain what we mean. One definition (which I think is the one we encompassers are using) is “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation”, which IS all encompassing.

    I didn’t accuse you of being anti-science, I accused you of equivocating. If you replace the word “science” in your talk with a more descriptive definition, none of the talk makes sense.

  46. 46
    aggressivePerfector

    PZ, you have my profound admiration, but I’m afraid whatever good points you made in that talk (there were some) were hideously drowned in about 30 minutes of densely packed drivel. Those poor arguments are not worthy of you.

    You set out to demonstrate that science can not approach the problem of identifying our highest-level moral goals, but all your arguments consisted of was examples of scientists making moral errors. You cannot possibly claim that these facts establish your desired thesis.

    Your list of moral blunders was impressive, but I can easily produce a much longer list of scientists who can’t work out the consequences of the Dirac equation. Does that mean quantum mechanics is not a science? Even worse, before 1900, literally nobody had the faintest idea what was going on with ultraviolet catastrophe. By your logic, science must abandon quantum theory.

    Your argument is of the same kind as those accommodationists who assert that because some scientists hold religious view, then science and religion must be logically compatible.

    If you were saying that the science of morality is in its infancy and accurate predictions are at the present time extremely difficult to produce, then I would agree. But if you go from there to claim that because of that we can’t use science and instead must rely on some kind of intelligent guesswork, then that statement would be self-refuting. You see, intelligent guesswork has another name. Its called science.

    You said science can’t fix the problem of overpopulation, because condoms have already been invented, and the problem is still there. Seriously? Yet you propose the alternative approach of liberating women, educationally and economically – seriously good suggestions, but what makes you think that would work? Is it just a blind guess (in which case why should anybody listen to you), or is it a guess guided by whatever information you have available, and whatever intelligence you can bring to the problem? If the latter, how is that different from science? Why should we not try to cultivate that science and make it better?

    I recognize the problem that many scientists have with the idea of moral science, that they can not see the link between facts about the world and ethical goals, but about 30 minutes into the talk, you actually identified this link. You were talking about animal experiments, and you said something like ‘if you value the wellbeing of a [some animal], then maybe you won’t want to do experiments on it.’ We just need to recognize the obvious fact that value is a physical (and biological) phenomenon, corresponding to states of brains that are as real as anything that any scientist cares to measure. There’s a detailed statement on moral science on my own blog.

  47. 47
    Brad Peters

    “Which is why instead of just saying “science” we should explain what we mean. One definition (which I think is the one we encompassers are using) is “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation”, which IS all encompassing.”

    But you assume in this case that morality is exclusively found in the physical or material world, which it is not. And how does one objectively observe or experiment with a human thought or value? Your definition of science does not sound all encompassing to me.

  48. 48
    Scientismist

    Zibble — I agree pretty much with what you said in #22, but I have some reservations about your definition of science in #45 (all encompassing? Perhaps too all-encompassing). I’m afraid you can have “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation” and still have done little to nothing to avoid fooling yourself.

    It certainly helps to submit purported knowledge to the test of observation, and to exclude the non-material (at least until there is a demonstration that such a thing even exists), and systematization brings in what may be the primary virtue of science: that it combines the stories from many different avenues of observation to support its knowledge. But you can still systematize your observations of the material to such an extent that no conflicting observations can dissuade. Blondlot is said to have believed N-rays to have been real long after other scientists (even in France) had moved on (not only personal, but national pride may have been a factor).

    I think a sufficient definition of science must include at its heart the recognition that, since scientists (being human beings) will always make mistakes, the “findings” of science are meaningful only in the context of just how the experiment or observation was done (materials and methods are a crucial part of the paper), and the “final” version is always still open to criticism. Science is only highly probable knowledge; and it can only be said to be highly probable that it is knowledge at all.

    Brad Peters — In #47 you say that Zibble “assume[s] in this case that morality is exclusively found in the physical or material world, which it is not.” As I said, I did not even know that a non-material world had been shown to exist. On the other hand, making the claim of a non-material world is possibly the world’s most popular form of self-deception, and a source of unlimited opportunities for the unscrupulous to control other people through blatant lies.

    Yeah, I know, asking for a demonstration of the non-material is “scientism.” After over a half-century of asking, and not getting any coherent answer, my Bayesian prior for the existence of a non-material world has been reduced to a very small probability, but I am open to correction on the matter. Until then, I will continue to wear my scientism proudly.

  49. 49
    okstop

    @zibble (#45) et al.:

    Brad Peters (#47) nails it, as have several other people – show me one “ought” premise (the kind of thing you have to have for an “ought” conclusion, you know) that can be conclusively demonstrated by scientific means, WITHOUT “spotting” yourself another “ought” premise. It’s interesting to me that the people who are so dismissive of the “is-ought” problem don’t seem to have an answer for it, by and large, other than foot-stomping.

    @drewvogel (#42):

    But it’s not just an expanded definition of science, it’s a sweepingly revisionist one, too. That should give you pause – when you’re using terms in an idiosyncratic way, you’re not only in danger of failing to be able to communicate effectively, you may well be ignoring real distinctions that served to underwrite the original difference in terminology. As it happens there is an important distinction between rational, empirical attempts to answer questions (science) and simply rational attempts to answer questions (philosophy broadly speaking), because the former cannot answer certain kinds of questions – moral ones. That is a crucial thing to realize, and failure to realize this is one reason so many people in this thread seemed to have missed the point of PZ’s recitation of “Scientists Behaving Badly.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I took the point of that to be that these were clearly immoral ways of behaving that could not be shown to be wrong on the basis of scientific considerations, then or now. We didn’t come to regard their work as morally wrong because the SCIENCE changed, and, indeed, no change in the science would be sufficient to produce such a change in moral judgment. The science was not enough to provide moral guidance. That, unless I’ve misunderstood, was the point.

  50. 50
    zibble

    @47 Brad Peters
    It’s not an assumption. Morality provably IS exclusive to the material world, because that’s where we live.

    Can morality exist independent of sentience? As in, if there are no living beings in the universe, does morality exist? Can rocks be moral or immoral? Obviously not. “Morality” is wholly dependent on living creatures capable of making choices. Human morality only exists in humans, and humans only exist in the universe that humans can observe.

    This doesn’t mean there aren’t other universes or other facets to reality beyond our comprehension. It’s just a tautology that if something is unknowable then you can’t know it, and you certainly can’t base moral decisions on it.

    “And how does one objectively observe or experiment with a human thought or value?”
    Well, there’s psychology, psychiatry, neurology, neurosurgery, sociology, archaeology, (inhale) anthropology, demography, biology, ethology, cognitive science, linguistics, and semiotics, to name a few approaches.

  51. 51
    zibble

    @48 Scientismist

    I think a sufficient definition of science must include at its heart the recognition that, since scientists (being human beings) will always make mistakes, the “findings” of science are meaningful only in the context of just how the experiment or observation was done (materials and methods are a crucial part of the paper), and the “final” version is always still open to criticism. Science is only highly probable knowledge; and it can only be said to be highly probable that it is knowledge at all.

    I agree, but I don’t really see where I implied I thought otherwise.

    But this is exactly the reason I think we should stop just saying “science”, it’s too unclear and it confuses people into thinking we’re suggesting biology is our new church and Richard Dawkins is our new Jesus. The point, as I see it, isn’t “science” itself, it’s that there is a method with which science is best performed (valuing reason, evidence, falsifiability, and creativity) and that this method has applications outside of the formal sciences. To say “science” is all-encompassing is, I think, accurate, but to say “empiricism” is much much MUCH more precise.

  52. 52
    zibble

    @49 okstop

    show me one “ought” premise (the kind of thing you have to have for an “ought” conclusion, you know) that can be conclusively demonstrated by scientific means

    Can you show me one “ought” premise that can demonstrated by *any* means?

    Let’s entertain the idea that there simply *are* no “oughts”. This genuinely is a massive philosophical problem, but the first step to solving that problem is recognizing it, not just pulling oughts out of our butts.

  53. 53
    Stacy

    Can anyone tell me what, other than science, is necessary for morality?

    Empathy. A sense of fairness. A desire for reciprocity.

    It’s possible to imagine science–the tool–being used without being informed by any of those things. I suppose you could argue that in a world of sociopaths, eventually scientists might arrive at the conclusion that it’s better for individuals and society to try and act fairly with one another and behave as if they possessed empathy. Maybe that would happen, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a given, though.

    Fortunately very few of us are sociopaths. Natural selection did the experiment for us, without any help from scientists, or any guiding mind at all. Social animals care about one another and about fairness; it helps them thrive. So we bring those feelings and desires to our science.

  54. 54
    drewvogel

    I don’t have any other answer to the is-ought problem except to simply deny that it is a problem. Pat Churchland gave what I think is the best explanation. Hume’s point was that you can’t derive an ought from an is, which is true, but derivation is not our only tool. You can infer an ought from an is without difficulty. Sure, it requires that you make a certain foundational assumption, but that is no problem. Every area of human knowledge is based on some foundational assumption. It’s not a problem.

    To put it another way, it is no impediment to the fruitful scientific study of physics to concede that we cannot prove we’re not living in the Matrix. It could be that physical laws are entirely different from what we think they are, and that we’ve been deceived by some kind of incredibly sophisticated simulation. Does that mean that everything we think we know about physics is in doubt? Well, yes, technically, but it isn’t something anyone needs to be concerned about. Morality is like that too. It’s based on a foundational assumption which we cannot prove (i.e. that morality is concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures), but this is no impediment.

    Also, I think all of the wrongs in PZ’s litany can be shown to be wrong with science (broadly construed), and the science did change. But we need to distinguish between cases where the scientists don’t know that what they’re doing is wrong from the cases where they know (or should have known) that they were violating ethical guidelines. It’s really just the former situations we should consider. And again, I think the treatment of animals is a good example. Scientists once believed that human beings were entirely distinct from mere animals, which were not entitled to any moral consideration at all. Greater understanding of biology made that view untenable.

  55. 55
    zibble

    @54 drewvogel

    Hume’s point was that you can’t derive an ought from an is, which is true, but derivation is not our only tool. You can infer an ought from an is without difficulty. Sure, it requires that you make a certain foundational assumption, but that is no problem. Every area of human knowledge is based on some foundational assumption. It’s not a problem.

    It’s a problem because we don’t make the same assumptions. We can assume that reality is real because it’s irrelevant if it isn’t (which also makes it more than just an assumption, see model dependent realism). The problem of making moral oughts just an assumption is that people are going to assume things on a self-serving basis. A prime example of this is Objectivism, where people make a moral assumption that they should only care about themselves.

    I don’t have an easy solution to this problem and I don’t think there is one. We just have to start from a point where we’re actually acting in service of our oughts, which Christians for example AREN’T when they try to curb teen pregnancy by banning condoms (or loving their gay neighbors by making them second class citizens, or loving their children by denying them proper medical treatment etc etc).

  56. 56
    mikeyb

    Much of this boils down to some posited moral goal “the well being of conscious creatures,” etc. No matter how laudable that may be, or how much I may personally agree with this, nothing in the universe compels that this or any other moral goal should be value we hang our hats on or perform studies to optimize. Why is this so difficult for some people to understand.

  57. 57
    okstop

    @zibble (#52):

    Pick a position: either there are no oughts, or morality is provable from “science” (as you use the term), as you assert in #50.

    Me, I’m for the position that there are no oughts that exist out there in the universe, and, indeed, you can’t demonstrate an ought-conclusion without spotting yourself an ought-premise. But there’s a difference between categorical and hypothetical oughts: we can all agree that, when talking about, say, basketball and assuming that Team X wants to win, Team X ought to do this and that and so on and so forth. That’s a hypothetical ought, one that relies on stipulating that certain things are desiderata. You make a good point in #55 that we don’t all make the same assumptions once we broaden our scope to beyond well-defined, well-bounded areas of activity, but that doesn’t make the problem insurmountable. Of course, it also clearly isn’t a problem for science as the term is traditionally used.

  58. 58
    Brad Peters

    @zibble(#50)

    It’s not an assumption. Morality provably IS exclusive to the material world, because that’s where we live.

    A bad argument. Man’s physical body may exist in the material world, but his ideas do not. You seem to be conflating necessary and sufficient conditions. For a human to create a moral value, it is necessary for that person to exist in the material world, but it is not sufficient.

    “Morality” is wholly dependent on living creatures capable of making choices.

    Yes, but choices are based on reasons, not objective material facts.

    “And how does one objectively observe or experiment with a human thought or value?”
    Well, there’s psychology…

    I am a psychologist and a university professor: I can confidently tell you that that there is nothing ‘objective’ about our attempts to study the human mind. Again the clearest definition of science is: ” the systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.” Yet we cannot observe a thought or touch a feeling… I argue that much of what we do in the ‘social sciences’ is actually philosophy (or we more commonly make problematic assumptions). I make this argument in these two videos: http://modernpsychologist.ca/psychology-theory-and-critical-thinking/; I would challenge you to show me how I am wrong.

    You cannot study a human value (morality) in the same way that you study cells under a microscope. Harris’ position is that science can objectively study morality. I believe he is wrong for the same reasons as Kenan Malik:

    “Harris insists that morality ‘really relates to the intentions and behaviours that affect the well-being of conscious creatures’ and so can ‘translate into facts that can be scientifically understood’. But why should morality self-evidently relate solely to the ‘well-being of conscious creatures’? Why not, as some insist, to the wellbeing of the planet? Or of ecosystems? Or, as others argue, to the wellbeing of humans, as autonomous moral agents, rather than to that of all conscious creatures? I can think of rational arguments that can help distinguish between these claims. But I can think of no empirical test that can do so. Nor does Harris suggest any. And if there is no such test, it is difficult to know how it is a fact that can be scientifically understood.”

    In short, morality is primarily the object of moral philosophy (based on deductive logic and reasons), not science (based primarily on objective observation and experimentation).

  59. 59
    zibble

    @58 BP

    A bad argument. Man’s physical body may exist in the material world, but his ideas do not.

    The brain isn’t the physical world?

    Or do you mean when ideas are expressed outside of the brain, such as being written on physical paper or displayed on physical computer screens or recorded in physical storage media or spoken with physical lips, the physical soundwave passing through physical air before hitting our physical eardrums, translating the physical vibrations into physical electrical signals feeding into our physical brain?

    The “material world” refers to a lot more than concrete, solid objects you can hold in your hands. Or do you think kinetic energy isn’t a material force?

  60. 60
    John Morales

    zibble, your quibble is feeble.

    (Do the ideas in, say, a thesis written by someone now dead and which has never been read by anyone exist in the physical world?)

  61. 61
    zibble

    @57 okstop

    Pick a position: either there are no oughts, or morality is provable from “science” (as you use the term), as you assert in #50.

    Ah, yes, nothing convinces like a false dichotomy.

    I don’t assert that morality is provable from “science” in #50. I don’t assert anything close to that. I say that morality is purely a material process, because we’re material; everything that matters to us is made of material.

    Consider an alternative to your dichotomy; there are no oughts. To truly understand morality, then, we have to begin from the understanding that there are no oughts, not just pull oughts straight out of our ass. So no, I don’t think science will tell us how we’re “supposed to” act, because I don’t think there’s anything in the universe besides conscious creatures that gives a fuck what we do. I think the best we can manage is to be accurately informed about the total net effect of our actions and then decide if people who act objectively in the interest of themselves over others are people with whom we want to associate.

    Yes there are cracks in our empirical understanding of the universe and how we fit within it, but you can’t just fill those with bullshit.

  62. 62
    zibble

    @60 John Morales

    (Do the ideas in, say, a thesis written by someone now dead and which has never been read by anyone exist in the physical world?)

    Is it written on a piece of paper?

    My boyfriend very angrily adds “if ideas aren’t material, how did burning the library of Alexandria destroy so many ideas just by destroying the material!?”, lol.

  63. 63
    John Morales

    zibble:

    Is it written on a piece of paper?

    Does it matter? Point is, it is written yet unread.

    I note you’ve only intimated your opinion; again: do the ideas represented in that thesis exist in the physical world if no-one is aware of them?

  64. 64
    zibble

    Does it matter?

    Uhhh, yeah? That’s like asking if it matters if a person’s body is alive.

    do the ideas represented in that thesis exist in the physical world if no-one is aware of them?

    Awareness is irrelevant. A rock doesn’t exist because people are aware of it, a rock exists because it has a physical presence in reality. An idea is the same way; it’s information, and it can have many different kinds of bodies (arrangements of neurons, graphite on paper, formations of rock, lines in the sand, formations of binary switches) but if it has no body, then it doesn’t exist.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m trying to see this in your perspective, and it sounds like you’re implying that an idea is something that humans harvest from some kind of aether, rather than something which is created in the mind. I don’t know what you even mean by “idea” if you think it exists before anyone’s thought of it, except possibly that you’re confusing an idea for its inspiration, like confusing a photograph for its subject.

  65. 65
    John Morales

    zibble:

    Uhhh, yeah? That’s like asking if it matters if a person’s body is alive.

    So you reckon ink on paper as opposed to patterns of magnetisation matters to the reality of any idea that’s thereby represented, eh? :)

    Awareness is irrelevant.

    Awareness of ideas is irrelevant, eh?

    A rock doesn’t exist because people are aware of it, a rock exists because it has a physical presence in reality.

    A rock is not the idea of a rock.

    An idea is the same way; it’s information, and it can have many different kinds of bodies (arrangements of neurons, graphite on paper, formations of rock, lines in the sand, formations of binary switches) but if it has no body, then it doesn’t exist.

    You are confusing the map with the territory; information is not its representation.

    (And, amusingly, it is you who claims that awareness of ideas is irrelevant to their physical existence)

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m trying to see this in your perspective, and it sounds like you’re implying that an idea is something that humans harvest from some kind of aether, rather than something which is created in the mind.

    The representation of an idea (whether ink on paper or albedo on a disc) is not the idea; I put it to you that ideas not only are generated in the mind, but exist in the mind, and that their representation and their

    I don’t know what you even mean by “idea” if you think it exists before anyone’s thought of it, except possibly that you’re confusing an idea for its inspiration, like confusing a photograph for its subject.

    An idea is a mental construct, not a physical thing.

    Look: it is the case that mutually-exclusive (i.e. contradictory) ideas exist; were ideas physical, you’d need to accept that mutually-exclusive things exist (e.g. a square circle).

  66. 66
    John Morales

    [I missed one slash]

    zibble:

    Uhhh, yeah? That’s like asking if it matters if a person’s body is alive.

    So you reckon ink on paper as opposed to patterns of magnetisation matters to the reality of any idea that’s thereby represented, eh? :)

    Awareness is irrelevant.

    Awareness of ideas is irrelevant, eh?

    A rock doesn’t exist because people are aware of it, a rock exists because it has a physical presence in reality.

    A rock is not the idea of a rock.

    An idea is the same way; it’s information, and it can have many different kinds of bodies (arrangements of neurons, graphite on paper, formations of rock, lines in the sand, formations of binary switches) but if it has no body, then it doesn’t exist.

    You are confusing the map with the territory; information is not its representation.

    (And, amusingly, it is you who claims that awareness of ideas is irrelevant to their physical existence)

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m trying to see this in your perspective, and it sounds like you’re implying that an idea is something that humans harvest from some kind of aether, rather than something which is created in the mind.

    The representation of an idea (whether ink on paper or albedo on a disc) is not the idea; I put it to you that ideas not only are generated in the mind, but exist in the mind, and that their representation and their

    I don’t know what you even mean by “idea” if you think it exists before anyone’s thought of it, except possibly that you’re confusing an idea for its inspiration, like confusing a photograph for its subject.

    An idea is a mental construct, not a physical thing.

    Look: it is the case that mutually-exclusive (i.e. contradictory) ideas exist; were ideas physical, you’d need to accept that mutually-exclusive things exist (e.g. a square circle).

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