Apr 15 2014

Why We Need a Skeptical Movement

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101 responses so far

101 Responses to “Why We Need a Skeptical Movement”

  1. MaryMon 15 Apr 2014 at 10:03 am

    I understand the idea about moving on from UFOs and Bigfoot. And I think that is sensible because the current topics affecting the discourse are largely different. But that said, when the Bigfoot DNA sequence claims were released, it wasn’t the skeptics’ fault this had risen like a zombie.

    In the genomics community, people were suddenly looking around trying to figure out what the hell was going on that led to this. It was really great to have the sort of “institutional memory” of the players and the past claims to understand the context. Previous blogging and links to other news were really helpful.

    The conference was a great experience for me. I went mostly for the GMO part, but I also went to see how the skeptics took to this. I was watching folks who had some unresolved issues with GMOs talk with Kevin afterwards. My sense was that some knew some aspects of the current debates (testing, labels) and some didn’t know much but were inclined to dislike corporations and patents. But as I watched Kevin talk to them, the vibe I got was that they were at least open to the evidence and understanding the underlying details. And this was very different from other groups I’ve seen that just dismiss anything from GMO advocates.

  2. idoubtiton 15 Apr 2014 at 11:58 am

    As an observer and participant in the skeptical community for over 20 years now, even through its transition, I expressed some opinions (and facts) that disputed Jon’s post. I left a comment there that is pending moderation but I’ll reiterate here.

    Jon seems to be confusing science and skepticism. He mentions in his piece that we (skeptics) should do scientific research. That’s for scientists. Most skeptics are NOT scientists. English professors, historians, photographers, artists, medical professionals, etc. can do much more “impactful” work than scientific research that the public will not access. To suggest we do research is conflating science and skepticism pretty badly. I wrote Media Guide to Skepticism http://doubtfulnews.com/media-guide-to-skepticism/ mainly for journalists who use the term incorrectly, but it also to clarify the differences for people new to this way of thinking. Research is a useful part of the project but we all must play to our strengths. That includes art, humanities, legal and philosophy fields. That diversity is a GREAT strength in the movement.

    I’d add that collaboration is lacking in the skeptical movement right now. There are distinct camps and cliques and not enough cross promotion and support. Leadership is also lacking. I find problems with all three major skeptical orgs in the U.S. that can be fixed. Maybe someday the will to do that will emerge to make a cohesive national platform for skeptical activism. I hope. It’s sorely needed.

    Finally, regarding UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts and paranormal stuff, I would heartily agree with you, Steve, and I have numbers to show for it from my own website, Doubtful News. These kinds of stories get eyeballs, big time, from everyday people interested in the story they saw in the news. I engage directly with believers face to face and online who want the reasonable view, they want a good answer. There is hardly a BETTER teachable moment than talking about paranormal topics to all ages – kids through adults. And they are fun discussions! It’s a giant mistake to say us “Bigfoot skeptics” are wasting our time. That is demonstrably wrong. In addition, many of us skeptics are here BECAUSE of those topics. They are often gateways to critical thinking.

    The public and the media LOOK for counteradvocates for these claims. We must provide that! It makes no sense to ignore some of the most talked about topics in need of everyday skepticism. That they don’t appear much at skeptical cons makes sense. But our audience, as a movement, IS THE PUBLIC.

    I thought Jon’s post was overly simplistic and too shallow a view of the movement. It’s far more complicated. It’s also worth working on.

  3. Johnnyon 15 Apr 2014 at 2:19 pm

    “Skepticism is about promoting science and critical thinking in the public square. Occasionally scientists do that, but not enough, and not effectively when pseudoscience is involved.”

    The understatement of the day. I know Sagan and Gould did quite a bit of it in their days. Tyson has stated he has no interest in doing so. Thje only high-profile scientist that does it today, to my knowledge, is Richard Dawkins.

    “Skeptics bring to the table something that, in an ideal world, every scientist would know, but in the real world precious few do. We study the mechanisms of self deception, philosophy of science, pathological science, the history of pseudoscience, the laws regulating science, and the demarcation between science and pseudoscience.”

    I agree. Ideally science and skepticism should merge, at least somewhat.

  4. MarshallDogon 15 Apr 2014 at 3:01 pm

    There was a Bigfoot mention at NECSS during Stimulus/Response. Dr. Novella told the story better than I ever could.

  5. GregBon 15 Apr 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Should skeptics be mere acolytes, spin-meisters, and sock puppets for science? Because I think in the end some hold an unfortunately sturdy attitude that “skeptics”–that is, people with some awareness of and expertise in the pathologies of thought and knowledge–need to restrict their activities to “the public square”. But it is deeply wrong to hold that science, in both its methods and certainly in the fruits of its use, is somehow not part of that “square”, or should not be subject to the same careful scrutiny we give lesser matters like cattle mutilations, crop circles and spontaneous combustion.

    There was a time when such things were more than enough juicy meat for a nascent skeptical movement, but to me that seemed to change in the early 90s. It was clear Skeptical Inquirer began to take a look at heftier subjects, perhaps due in part to the real world traumas of so-called recovered memories and Satanic Ritual Abuse, perhaps to boredom over the 30th Yeti story.

    In particular, I recall an article once on the subject of P-values, null-hypothesis significance testing, and the use of such in many scientific circles. Or rather, the misuse–from the article it was clear that far too many researchers made very serious errors in applying this (skimpy) methodology, with no real sanction or even notice by their scientific peers.

    This to me was both fascinating and alarming…here we had an excellent example of sloppy thinking which was nonetheless effectively ignored by people we would presume would never allow such a thing.
    Over time further reading has lead to the discovery that this is just the tip of the iceberg for many fields, perhaps even all of them outside of physics and certain of the harder sciences. There are significant operational, methodological, and epistemological problems with large swaths of research, and this condition has existed for years. The snickers from physicists and such about the strangely lax attitudes toward evidence exhibited by psychologists, sociologists, epidemiologists, and the screams from mathematicians about ignorant or incompetent use of statistical tools largely fell on deaf ears. And this should not be surprising, since decades-long careers and many a puffy reputation depended (and depends) on such problematic research.

    There simply is NO reason why skeptics shouldn’t be aware of and merrily engage in the issues mentioned in this fine article:

    http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/apr/10/tamiflu-saga-drug-trials-big-pharma

    Or here:

    http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0020124

    Nor here (in fact, they should be very powerful advocates for the excellent corrections given by this paper’s authors):

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1740-9713.2011.00506.x/abstract

    One need not necessarily be a “peer” or expert in a particular field to understand and detect problems such as publication bias or variable-shifting. You just need to know long-understood issues with the way we go about “knowing” things. And skeptics, having no dogmatic axes to grind or careers to defend, are well-suited for taking that sort of hard look when necessary.

    It’s important that skeptics as spokespersons for science appreciate all of the above. Unfortunately, instead I often see prominent skeptics using deeply flawed methods like surveys etc. to prove ideological points while claiming the mantle of careful thought and inquiry (lately you see this in particular among some of the so-called “drama bloggers” and other activist groups polluting skeptical discourse).

    This is *bad*. It is *wrong*. It should not be tolerated, and critical thinkers should deploy their tools no matter where they find them, most particularly when they find them in their own heads (and that is the first place they should be looking).

    The attitude that we should not cast a skeptical eye toward endeavors like psychology is, I think, the truly significantly damaging thing done by groups like Scientology, because it taints serious (if non-connected) critics with the same crazy colors. And an honest look at that field suggests serious outside criticism is well-warranted. Daft ideas like widespread recovered memories of incest are just the tip of the iceberg, as a good look at prior DSMs will reveal in its past, and the current “drug everyone” craze tells us about today (on which point we have to admit, the crazies sadly make a certain amount of sense). And we find similar problems in fields like economics etc.

    They could all use a good Randi or two.

    Finally, I think there is a tendency among many skeptics to give certain powerful institutions a pass when it comes to where they choose to cast their eyes.

    In some cases, I think this rises to the point of moral failure. The most prominent example of this I think would be the lack of response by hard-working, normally aggressive groups like Quackwatch to government pronouncements about and research restrictions against marijuana. The official policies and bogus statements by officials have long been at odds with observational facts about the substance, and very important and promising research has been stymied for political purposes. Given our current relatively poor understanding of a host of things about the human body, that well-recognized potential for benefits from that and other substances, and the need for numerous cures treatments they *may* provide, how can such attitudes held by those officials be characterized as anything but “fraudulent”? And yet, while the many consequences of those attitudes are profoundly damaging in several ways, the groups we depend on to protect us are silent.

    There are ample other examples (drug-detecting dogs being subject to the “Clever Hans” effect; police departments routinely if not universally using lie detector tests on recruits) in law enforcement, but that’s just a start, one of the many places skeptical skills could improve our lot. That is the point of humanism and the enlightenment, isn’t it?

    There is no square. There is no box. There should be no limit to where we shoot the arrows in our quiver. And if we are acolytes, let us instead become ombudsmen–ombudsmen for the truth, or as close to that difficult goal as possible.

  6. Enzoon 15 Apr 2014 at 4:44 pm

    With regard to the point that science has prevailed without skeptics all along, I think a few things have come along since the “big” science victories of the past. Namely, we now have the internet and distinctly anti-science agenda public campaigns (anti-vax, anti-GMO).

    In light of these new phenomenon, it is fairly disingenuous to say the experiment has been done and skeptics are not needed. Too much has changed since the 40s-60s. The trust the public has in the medical/scientific profession alone has dramatically shifted since then.

  7. ducktoeson 15 Apr 2014 at 4:51 pm

    I guess I’m just wondering what this guy is consuming. To me, SGU and all the various people from the community featured there, this blog, Skeptical Inquirer, NCES… these things don’t resemble at all what he’s describing. It seems deep and positive and dynamic and evolving fast! Interesting, exciting, heartening… Where is all this negativity? The only thing I can think of is that he is reading too many youtube comments. Possibly there are people out there who just can’t define themselves other than in opposition against something trending and known. I really can’t help but to read some whiffs of inferiority complex in his post — there are people who are making some serious measurable advances, people who gather other useful people into their fold, and that can seem intimidating. Then there are armchair skeptics, bloggers, vloggers, personalities who haven’t been invited or seen the success of numbers possibly through no particular fault other than the world is just this really big place with a lot of room for ‘a thousand flowers to bloom,’ as Dr Novella puts it. People who perhaps could do more to get out there and touch the world. Work hard and be modest and let your work bring you to unexpected zones that maybe never existed before, friend. Blaze them trailz.

    From Yankee Skeptic: “Historically, we have somehow managed to steer our way through the insanity of magically-based medical cures, creationism in the classroom, and many other silly and worthless concepts without boat cruises, political activists, glamorous dinner events, expensive hotel seminars, meet & greet events, paid lectures, pub meetings and book tours.”

    Obviously he’s being flippant, but the key phrase here, emblematic to his whole argument, is “somehow managed.” This fella is taking a page from the pseudoscience and creationist playbook, which is to say being broadly dismissive of something complex in favor of calling attention to an oversimplified version of reality — this effect just happens, you can’t say why — also implying that this oversimplification is somehow predictive. It’s particularly ironic considering the backbone of skepticism is specificity — what specifically was done “historically” to “steer our way through the insanity?” Obviously it’s easiest to just feel pretty good about the positive outcome in hindsight, and to take that as a cozy prediction for the future. It’s much more difficult to identify the key personalities, movements, events etc. (as Dr. Novella has done fairly off the cuff here) that met with equal force pseudoscience and extraordinary claims that otherwise would have done more damage. Adding creationism to this list is incredible considering the concerted efforts on the part of religious groups in certain states to add creationism to the curriculum. Wut. There are very specific efforts to stem this. Should we not support them? Should we chill for a hundred years, content to slip into a dark age because we know it all turns out ok in the end? Weird.

    Also, attacking meet and greets is a pretty easy target. People who spend significant amounts of time working on positively sculpting the present know they can only benefit from the free exchange of ideas. And as Dr. Novella mentions here, welcome to being human. People are social and like to have positive interactions with a stimulating community. Art is created here, and strength of solidarity. I don’t mean to sound naive and idealistic, I know that there are always creeps. But mostly they get weeded out I think.

  8. BillyJoe7on 15 Apr 2014 at 5:50 pm

    “The top science blogs and podcasts, for example, are littered with skeptics”

    Oops, wrong verb.
    Save that word for the gods and religions of history as in: history is littered with a thousand gods and a thousand religions.

  9. BillyJoe7on 15 Apr 2014 at 5:55 pm

    ….which reminds me that there are two things scepticism needs to come to terms with apart from politics: religion and sexism.

  10. NNMon 15 Apr 2014 at 6:38 pm

    Religion is a good example of what can happen if nonsense spreads.
    Seriously, who would fall for a guy walking on water, returning from the dead, born of a virgin, to take one example that won’t cause a jihad on me.

  11. AlisonMon 15 Apr 2014 at 8:31 pm

    I always question the motivation of people who adopt the “Just ignore it and it’ll go away” stance. I guess they’re not really skeptics, because a skeptical person would have looked at the evidence that shows it never happens that way. . .

  12. BaSon 16 Apr 2014 at 5:19 am

    Super pedantic, but: Cady Coleman did have a mention of “UFO”s at the beginning of her presentation. It was used as a joke and not pursued as a topic in any fashion.

    And so, that does not in any way lessen Steve’s point.

  13. pdeboeron 16 Apr 2014 at 8:29 am

    Great article. As some have pointed out, the science has and will prevail idea, doesn’t account for the arms race that takes place as the world becomes smaller and undue voices become louder.

    I would like to point out that “…let a thousand flowers bloom.” is a Chairman Mao quote(actually “let a hundred flowers blossom”) about when he invited the intellectuals to voice their opinions, only to arrest and kill those that criticized him.

  14. etatroon 16 Apr 2014 at 10:28 am

    I had to explain once to my historian friend the difference between “scientism” and skepticism (as we use it). It turns out that scientism is a view of the primacy of science and pure rational thought (I guess Ayn Rand esque?) over humanistic pursuits of culture and that art, culture, history, literature will not answer useful questions about the human condition. I think this is largely a strawman fallacy. You can’t listen to or read 5 minutes of a skeptical discussion without references to culture, movies, music, books, etc. even this post of Steve’s, I immediately thought of Aristotle’s conclusion that man by its nature is a political animal, and how we’ve wrestled with those implications in our institutions (top down and ground up) for at least 2.3K years. Yeah … skeptics value the humanities more than we’re given credit for. I think this “scientism” thing is a pejorative, but I haven’t figured out the motives behind those who created and spread it. I would say woo-peddlers, but it seems to come from academics.

  15. Steven Novellaon 16 Apr 2014 at 10:48 am

    Scientism represents an extreme position and there is reasonable academic criticism of it. Scientism is not just making science number one, but can also include the claim that it is always the best and only intellectual tool (denying the role of philosophy, for example), and also that science is capable of answering all questions.

    But it is often invoked as a straw man and as a false criticism of skepticism. Woomeisters will claim that requiring science to address issues of origins or the mind is scientism, but they are just trying to inject spirituality into areas that are legitimately the domain of science.

  16. idoubtiton 16 Apr 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Etatro: Some “skeptics” do practice scientism. They are science cheerleaders “Because… SCIENCE!” and the lose the nuance of the issue. I wrote this piece and got some shit from people about it: http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/over-reliance_on_science/

    As I said above, too many skeptics conflate science and skepticism and that can lead to accusations of scientism. It’s thrown at skeptics a lot in woo discussions but sometimes, we deserve it.

  17. BillyJoe7on 16 Apr 2014 at 6:02 pm

    Part of the problem is the definition of science.
    Is anthropology science?
    Is history science?
    Is a mechanic doing science when he diagnoses why your car won’t start?
    If the answer for you is “no” to all of these, then perhaps your definition of science is too narrow.

    But, do people in general show an over reliance on science?
    The answer is surely “no”.
    The average person ignores science when it suits them.
    Politicians and religious people especially so.
    But where are all these people who show an OVER reliance on science?

    If I say that science is the only way to tell truth from fiction, is that scientism?
    Or am I just overly broad in my definition for your liking?

    Scientism is a pejorative term used by the anti-science crowd and we should be wary of using it.

  18. Bill Openthalton 16 Apr 2014 at 7:14 pm

    BillyJoe7 –

    ….which reminds me that there are two things scepticism needs to come to terms with apart from politics: religion and sexism.

    What politics, religion and (certain tendencies in the fight against) sexism(*) have in common is dogma. Defenders of religion want it to be exempt from skeptical scrutiny. Anti-sexists want their central tenets (such as the Patriarchy) to be accepted without question. Basic political ideas about capitalism, or socialism are not negotiable.

    If you mean by “come to terms with”, accepting a number of dogmas, I respectfully beg to differ. Not everything can be approached through the scientific method (remember “De gustibus coloribusque non disputandum”), but a lot of the dogmas of religions and political convictions are not merely a matter of taste (and hence fair game for skeptical inquiry).

    Trying to align skepticism with progressive political dogma will destroy the credibility of the skeptical approach.

    (*) Sexism is a difficult issue, in the sense that there is no reason why a society cannot function with gender-determined roles, and depending on its technological abilities, some division of labour based on gender is unavoidable. For example, absent adequate baby food, women will have to “stay home” to breastfeed their babies and infants. Our society has not yet found a way to give males a uterus, leaving the most important gender difference (the ability to create life) in place. How people organise their society is a moral, not a scientific choice. While I prefer a society where each individual can make their own choices, and pursue their goals without being restricted by irrelevant gender (or social, or “race”) considerations, I do not think skepticism should do anything else but point out the fallacies underlying sexism, racism, ageism etc. At the same time, skepticism should not shirk away from pointing out the fallacies in political and religious dogma.

  19. etatroon 16 Apr 2014 at 9:51 pm

    I have actually never met anyone in real life advocating a scientism point of view, which is why I thought it was a strawman and never actually heard of it until my friend misapplied the term to skepticism. I can’t think of any historical figure either except maybe Ayn Rand (who was really applying post hoc reasoning and calling it “rationalism”). Maybe some charictatures of Moa, Moussilini, Franco, and Hitler … but that’s probably largely fiction anyhow. As an academic exercise, I suppose a reasonable critique could be made, but I have yet to see the label accurately applied in real life. The question I wrestle with is, rhetorically, how to respond when it’s misapplied.

  20. Steven Novellaon 17 Apr 2014 at 8:04 am

    The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris is a good example of scientism, in my opinion.
    http://www.samharris.org/the-moral-landscape
    Massimo discusses it here: http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/11-02-02/

    Most of the time I here the term applied it is a straw man by those who are anti-science.
    But – it does rear it’s head every now and then in scientific/skeptical circles.

  21. Bill Openthalton 17 Apr 2014 at 9:47 am

    Steven –

    I have read The Moral Landscape, and it is nothing more than an attempt at finding an objective (call it “scientific” if you want) way to compare moral systems by taking the well-being of as many sentient creatures as a yardstick. The book’s Achilles’ heel is that well-being is as much defined by an individual’s integration in society as by the resources and opportunities they have. Preferring individual aspects of well-being over group aspects is indicative of Sam’s own moral stance, and this severely weakens the book’s thesis It might be a failed attempt, but he deserves plaudits for trying — don’t forget that a failed experiment often teaches us more than a successful one.

  22. Steven Novellaon 17 Apr 2014 at 10:13 am

    Bill – I think the book is fine as far as it goes. But – Harris does try to argue that moral decisions can be not just informed but determined by science, without the need for getting one’s hands dirty with philosophy. He does not realize, however, that he is making philosophical choices in his premises, he is just not exploring them explicitly.

    That approach is scientism, the denial of the role of philosophy in evaluating moral systems. Read the accompanying link to Massimo’s discussion.

  23. ccbowerson 17 Apr 2014 at 11:04 am

    I agree that Moral Landscape is a good example of scientism. The book was fine, but he failed in the main objective of the book. He made a huge leap from scientific evidence to the morality, and then assumed that the leap was an obvious step without without making a complete argument. Sometimes he tried to include everything as science (or facts) to do this, and other times he just made an incomplete argument, ignoring obvious holes. He failed to address the body of work regarding ethics, and his dismissal of that was baseless and disappointing.

    I also understand BJ7s dislike for the term scientism, but I think it can be properly used to describe the most extreme positions- but because it is a derogatory term it is often (usually) used inappropriately.

  24. thoron 17 Apr 2014 at 3:05 pm

    It does not appear that much will change as long as those in the public eye have the floor to talk about what they believe. The American culture will follow any celebrities opinion over a recognized scientist anyday. Look how much damage to immunization rates came from the voice of a playboy bunny.

  25. Bill Openthalton 17 Apr 2014 at 3:37 pm

    I don’t think philosophy (which started its career as the science of its day) has any special status. It either deals with clarity and correctness of thought, which is underlying skepticism and the scientific method, or it deals with abstruse generalizations, abstractions, and epi-religious worldviews. Once it ventures into the unverifiable, it is no better than many religions (whose theologians have produced equally lurid and hermetic prose).

    Unverifiable conjectures of the human mind have their value, like music, and the other art forms, but they remain a matter of choice and preference, in which no human can claim to prevail over another human (certainly not because they know the terminology devised by their predecessors).

    Expecting that what we would like others to accept must be independently verifiable is not “scientism”.

  26. Steven Novellaon 17 Apr 2014 at 4:21 pm

    Bill – sorry, I think you’re way off. Both science and philosophy require precision and clarity of thought. The real difference is that science is empirical, while philosophy is not strictly empirical (although it can be informed by empiricism). You are incorrect to dismiss philosophy as no better than religion.

    There is something called philosophy of science, and morality requires a philosophical structure. There is no such thing as an entirely empirical ethics (that is scientism) – at some point you have to justify your construct philosophically. Harris simply assumed utilitarianism without ever acknowledging that he was doing so and absent any discussion of the relative merits and implications of the various moral systems. He also, as a result, did not address the serious problems with utilitarian ethics.

  27. ccbowerson 17 Apr 2014 at 6:25 pm

    “Harris simply assumed utilitarianism without ever acknowledging that he was doing so and absent any discussion of the relative merits and implications of the various moral systems. He also, as a result, did not address the serious problems with utilitarian ethics.”

    Steve, this is a great point. The other aspect that Harris glossed over is addressing the issue of competing interest due to competing values. He brought it up briefly, but then gave a brief unsatisfactory answer of how it could be worked out.

    Bill, your perspective is a common one, but that is true of a lot of misguided perspectives. It is too big of a topic to easily discuss in the comments section of a blog, but there are some books on the subject. The analogy to music and art does not work very well as things such as logic ground philosophy, but even with art… it’s not just a matter of taste or purely arbitrary.

  28. BillyJoe7on 17 Apr 2014 at 10:13 pm

    If science can’t decide – even if just on the balance of probabilities – what is morally and ethically right and what is morally or ethically wrong by examining what we intuitively think we ought to do, then what else can decide this for us. Everything else is just opinion isn’t it? Why can’t science work for ethics and morality as it does for everything else?

    Like almost everything else in science, the science of morality and ethics can only get us closer and closer to the truth without actually probably ever getting there. The Earth is not a sphere, but that is not as wrong as saying that the Earth is flat. And there really doesn’t seem to be any other way to get there.

    To apply science to questions of morals and ethics we would simply generate hypotheses based on what we intuitively believe ought to be morally or ethically right or wrong. One hypothesis could be: “it is wrong for women to wear burqas”. Evidence could then be collected for and against this hypothesis. As a result further hypotheses could be generated, such as “it is wrong to require women to wear burqas” and “it is wrong for women to wear burqas even if they want to wear them”.

    Again…if forming hypotheses and collecting evidence for and against these hypotheses to get us closer to the truth about what is right and what is wrong cannot decide moral and ethical questions for us – even if just on the balance of probabilities – what else can decide them for us? What other method is there? If there is no other method, shouldn’t we at least try with the only method that has so far provided success in answering other questions?

  29. BillyJoe7on 17 Apr 2014 at 10:23 pm

    I would like to make clear what Sam Harris is proposing is that we study scientifically what we feel we ought to do order to establish two things: is my ought better than your ought; are my actions actually achieving my ought.

    I really don’t see where the problem is.

  30. etatroon 18 Apr 2014 at 2:47 am

    Without having read Harris’ book (I will get around to it at after this funding cycle), it seems these scientism positions need only be peeled back a layer or two to find unstated premises or value judgements upon which the scientific approach is based. Even in BJ’s example, what kind of evidence could possibly be presented to support that hypothesis? At some point, a value judgement has to be made on why a piece of evidence supports it. It’s not even a good hypothesis because it isn’t testable that I can tell. You should be able to test it a be able to say, “when I do X, y will happen if the hypothesis is true.” Or even better, “if I do x, an y happens, I can reject the null hypothesis, else accept the null hypothesis.” I guess I lack imagination, because I can’t figure out what would be. Eg, if all women had to wear burkas, they’d be unhappy. But that’s assuming its wrong to make people unhappy, why is that? Waiting in queues makes people unhappy, but we consider it fair. In the Venn diagram of scientism and skepticism, I think no one I know personally is in the overlap.

  31. Steven Novellaon 18 Apr 2014 at 4:52 am

    BJ7 – not just opinion, but careful philosophical thought. Science cannot tell us “ought” without the injection of subjective value judgments. How are you deciding which ought is better? Whatever criteria you choose is a philosophical choice with implications that need to be fully thought out.

    Science tells us what is, not what ought. It can only inform the choice, but we need more.

  32. Steven Novellaon 18 Apr 2014 at 4:54 am

    thor – actually Jenny McCarthy’s influence was very slight percentage-wise. Vaccine compliance remains around 95%. There are pockets of non-compliance, however, that result in the potential for outbreaks.

    Your point is still valid, but we need to keep it in perspective. The public still respects scientists more. The bigger problem is with pseudoscientists posing as real scientists.

  33. BillyJoe7on 18 Apr 2014 at 5:49 am

    etatro,

    Sam Harris’ “unstated premise or underlying value judgment” is actually stated.
    He takes it to be self evident that what increases “well-being” is “good”, and what decreases “well-being” it is “bad”.
    He takes issue with people who say things like:

    “if all women had to wear burkas, they’d be unhappy. But that’s assuming its wrong to make people unhappy, why is that?”

    Why is it wrong to make people unhappy?
    Really?
    If you are asking this in all seriousness, then that is probably where the discussion has to end.

    Sam Harris sets up two scenarios: one where a woman struggles for survival in a jungle pursued by predators who, shortly before subjecting her to an agonising death, forced her to witness her son being forced to dismember her daughters body with a machete; and the other where a woman is married to a man who is deeply in love with her, living in a beautiful home where everything is supplied for her and where she and her husband are free to pursue whatever interests them.
    He asks you to agree that the first scenario would by described as “bad”, and the second as “good”.

    If you can’t agree on that, then he admits he is not going to convince you that his claim regarding science is valid. On the other hand, if you can agree that the first scenario is “bad” and the second “good”, then there must be “facts of the matter” about what is “bad” and what is “good”. And, like all facts that are out there waiting to be discovered, they should, at least in principle, be reachable through science.

    “Even in BJ’s example, what kind of evidence could possibly be presented to support that hypothesis?”

    Remember the self evident premise that what is “good” is what increases “well-being”, and what is “bad” is what decreases “well-being”. If it can be determined that being required to wear a burqa decreases the women’s well-being, then that activity is declared to be immoral or unethical. If some women want to wear the burqa, it could still be declared immoral to require them to do so if there is evidence that this lowers the well-being of women who do not want to wear them.

    “Waiting in queues makes people unhappy, but we consider it fair”

    If there were no queues, there could be straining and clamouring, fights could break out, and people could get injured. Some might end up in hospital and others might end up in prison. If the evidence suggests that, in certain circumstances, queues are “good” for “well-being”, then queues would be the scientifically validated way to go.

  34. BillyJoe7on 18 Apr 2014 at 6:37 am

    Steven Novella,

    “BJ7 – not just opinion, but careful philosophical thought”

    I guess…provided your philosophising is based on, or at least not contrary to, the scientific evidence relevant to the question at hand. Depending on your definition of science, this can be construed as inherently part of the scientific quest. Massimo Pigliucci prefers to call this “scientia”, instead of “science” but even he admits there is no clear demarcation between science and philosophy.

    “Science cannot tell us “ought” without the injection of subjective value judgments”

    Sam Harris characterises an “ought” as a fact about the world which science can investigate. He characterises “oughts” as intuitive feelings – which could have their basis in our evolutionary history or in our cultural history – which are facts about the world to which science can have access. Science is also the method for deciding, through logic, reasoning and evidence, which intuitive feelings or “oughts” increase “well-being” and are therefore “good” and which decrease “well-being” and are therefore “bad”. If there is evidence that requiring the wearing of burqas decreases “well-being”, then the requirement to wear burkas is “bad”.
    Again, on what other basis can we decide between competing oughts

    “How are you deciding which ought is better?”

    On the evidence for which “oughts” increase “well-being”.

    “Whatever criteria you choose is a philosophical choice with implications that need to be fully thought out”

    Unless it is self-evident.
    Do you agree that what increases “well-being” is self-evidently “good”.
    If so, then all we need is evidence of “well-being” resulting from a certain activity to call it “good”.
    The collection of evidence is a scientific enterprise.

  35. grabulaon 18 Apr 2014 at 7:20 am

    @BJ7

    “Do you agree that what increases “well-being” is self-evidently “good”.”

    I think the pharaoh would agree but what about the slave?

    Logan ran for a reason, but for who’s well being?

  36. ccbowerson 18 Apr 2014 at 8:23 am

    “I would like to make clear what Sam Harris is proposing is that we study scientifically what we feel we ought to do order to establish two things: is my ought better than your ought; are my actions actually achieving my ought.”

    His critics don’t disagree with doing these things, and they are actually essential things to do. The problem is that that is not enough to ‘determine’ human values and morality, but Sam Harris seems to think it is, and that is the part of his book that gets the criticism. Doing the science in certain circumstances may go a long way to informing our morality (but perhaps less so in some areas), but he seems to think once you know all the facts and study them, your work is done.

  37. ccbowerson 18 Apr 2014 at 8:39 am

    I’m not sure that we need to get in a long, drawn out discussion of his book here, but here is a condensed version of his position as laid out in his books. This is his own summary:

    “Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice) – ”

    His conclusion does not follow. In order for his conclusion to follow, ‘is’ must equal ‘ought.’

  38. ccbowerson 18 Apr 2014 at 8:40 am

    *book

  39. etatroon 18 Apr 2014 at 11:44 am

    The stated premise that what enhances well being is good and what diminishes it is bad, is not a scientific statement. It’s a philosophical one that you can explore is freshman ethics classes for 10 weeks. Grabs example, the pyramids enhanced our well beings for millennia, but the slavery used to build them (assumption) was bad for the relatively few who built them. Even in the US example, if you consider the antebellum south’s use of slave labor as cheap, renewable energy, it was better for the environment, the economy, and political stability to keep people enslaved. But, you might argue the immediate suffering to the individuals outweighs the gains to the world, but that’s also a philosophical statement that contradicts the first. There are bits in our brains, amygdala, temporal-medial prefrontal cortex that signals to our body (we experience it as emotions, empathy, revulsion, etc), but it’s not necessarily immutable, some values are learned through culture and some individuals lack normal functioning in those parts of the brain.

  40. etatroon 18 Apr 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Sorry to have derailed the topic. But I have learned that scientism is a thing, Harris’ book is an example. Scientism is distict from skepticism, and you can use skeptical tools to examine scientisms’ arguments. And as a strawman from woo / mystics, easy to deflate.

  41. BillyJoe7on 18 Apr 2014 at 5:45 pm

    etatro,

    Scientism?
    Scepticism?
    You have read the book then?

    Anyway, after you have, there is an interesting discussion on it over at science based medicine:

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/science-and-morality/

    There are 250 comments or you could just read Harriet Hall’s replies.

  42. BillyJoe7on 18 Apr 2014 at 6:27 pm

    ccbowers,

    Me: “Sam Harris is proposing is that we study scientifically what we feel we ought to do in order to establish two things: is my ought better than your ought; are my actions actually achieving my ought.”
    You: “The problem is that that is not enough to ‘determine’ human values and morality”

    Let me try to explain what Sam Harris is saying:

    Before any philosophy gets done, there are “oughts” in the world.
    They are the instinctual and learned products of our evolutionary and cultural history respectively.
    These “oughts” are facts about the world.
    So we still doing only science.
    Some of these “oughts” are bad and some of these “oughts” are good.
    By collecting evidence about the consequences of these “oughts”, we can determine which “oughts” are bad and which “oughts” are good.
    So we are still doing only science.
    The only guiding principle is: what increases well-being is good and what decreases well-being is bad.
    He takes this as self-evident.
    So still no philosophy.

    Note:
    When Sam Harris says “well-being” he means “general well-being”, not the well-being of one group at the expense of another. The well-being is not necessarily immediate and there may be a initial period of decreased well-being leading to a later period of well-being that is greater that with which you started.
    And there are lots of different types of well-being for different individuals and groups of individuals on different times and places, which is what leads to his concept of “the moral landscape”.

  43. ccbowerson 18 Apr 2014 at 7:51 pm

    “By collecting evidence about the consequences of these ‘oughts’, we can determine which ‘oughts’ are bad and which ‘oughts’ are good.
    So we are still doing only science.”

    If you are assigning a value judgement, you are not merely doing science. To say that something is ‘bad’ or ‘good’ is not science, it would be using science to place a value judgement on particular actions. Harris tries to argue that values are “facts” therefore fall under science. Either he is committing the “naturalistic fallacy” or he is equivocating with terms, such as his use of ‘fact.’ Another issue is that underpinning his approach is utilitarianism, which is a philosophical position.

    There are some problems with this approach (utilitarianism), which he does not adequately address because he fails to acknowledge it is an approach at all… because he deems it as self evident. Perhaps if he didn’t dismiss the large body of work in philosophy he woould have made his point better.

    Some of the major issues for me are when there are competing aspects of well being, perhaps between different individuals, or between different groups, or diffferent ways of assessing well being, or even conflicts between describing what well being is under different senarios. These are also aspects of philosophy that he also fails to adequately address, in addition to his failure to realize that what he considers self evident is a philosophical position that informed people may disagree with.

    There are many hypotheticals that demonstrate the problems with this approach: What if we found that physical violence against children increased their later well being overall, and the science made this point clear that it did increase total well being slightly in a society (of course the evidence is the opposite, but we need such a hypothetical to make the point). From Harris’s perspective to not beat children with be morally wrong, correct? If total general well being is ‘the’ measure, then considerations such as individual autonomy will lose out.

    This type of measurement could work out badly for minority groups – perhaps enslaving a subgroup would greatly increase the well being of society as a whole. Too bad for them. You say that it is not ” not the well-being of one group at the expense of another.” Yeah? What aspect of science tells us that? Yes, it is philosphical arguments that do the work here. Let’s acknowledge that.

  44. ccbowerson 18 Apr 2014 at 8:03 pm

    Keep in mind, I do not think that Harris is that far off. Science can go along way to resolving moral questions, and I am sure that there are some issues for which better evidence would take care the disagreements (for the most part). I just think that at the end of the day, even with ample evidence addressing certain questions, people may still differ with regards to certain moral questions, because they value different aspects of life differently.

  45. Bill Openthalton 18 Apr 2014 at 8:28 pm

    Steven –

    When you justify your construct “philosophically”, what more than absence of fallacies and correct logical reasoning can philosophy bring to the table? The conviction of the philosopher?

    Either a concept is grounded in reality, and thus amenable to scientific enquiry, or it is a invention of a human brain, and hence only valid for those other humans who choose to accept it. It might be of tremendous value to many humans, but there is no reason why, other than societal pressure, anyone should accept it.

    It doesn’t matter who produces an idea — either it can be proved scientifically, meaning one no longer has the choice of accepting it or not (the only way to avoid accepting it is to prove it wrong scientifically), or it cannot be proved scientifically, meaning no-one can expect another person to accept it other than through their own choice (or through social pressure).

    Pigliucci’s bestiality story (“a perfect example of applied ethical philosophy”) posits logical coherency as the obviously sole valid reason for a course of action such as sex with animals. The simple fact is that the vast majority of people do not engage in sex with animals only because they experience a pronounced yuck reaction (those who don’t, do have sex with animals and rationalise it). This is similar to why heterosexual people do not engage in homosexual acts — they experience profound disgust at the mere idea, and no amount of reasoning, no matter how logically coherent, will change the feeling of disgust.

    Massimo dismisses the yuck feeling as “emotivism”, and expects us to nod in agreement when his protagonist manages to morally equate eating meat with bestiality to defeat her hapless opponent. In passing, he suggests as evident the idea that animals could give consent, which would make having sex with them morally OK but doesn’t seem to realise this implies that it would be morally OK to eat a consenting human. The simple fact is that animals cannot give consent — it’s beyond their mental abilities even to understand what consent means, so his example falls flat on its face.

    Here is a philosopher who is apparently ignorant of both basic human psychology and animal cognitive abilities heaping scorn on Harris for looking at neurobiology for an insight into what motivates people. Facepalm.

  46. grabulaon 18 Apr 2014 at 8:43 pm

    @bill

    “This is similar to why heterosexual people do not engage in homosexual acts — they experience profound disgust at the mere idea”

    I’m not disgusted by homosexual acts, I’m just not interested in them personally.

    As for the strength of philosophy my favorite and an extremely simple example of where philosophy is interesting is the situation where you have the choice of saving a bus load of people about to go off a bridge, or your wife/child who are drowning on the other side. The science would say that the best choice is to save the bus since that’s quantifiably the most lives saved. However, philosophically the “right” choice might be to stem a lifetime of guilt and pain at letting your loved ones die because you chose to save a bus load of strangers. My personal guilt would be much less having saved my loved one than having saved a bus load of strangers.

    The idea that science can determine right or wrong, or good or bad is where scientism goes wrong. To some extant sure, you can run experiments to see which outcome produces the best results but ultimately philosophy help understand the way we view the world and why beyond the unsatisfying results of scientific experiments you can’t really run anyway.

  47. Steven Novellaon 18 Apr 2014 at 10:34 pm

    Bill – you should read Massimo’s article more carefully.

    First, he does not posit moral consistency as the “sole valid reason” for a course of action. He merely states that it is necessary for a valid position – this does not imply it is the only thing necessary.

    Also, you completely miss his point. He was talking about someone else’s position, not his own, and only concludes that, when caught in a logical inconsistency, there are three choices – admit error, that vegetarianism is morally correct, admit that bestiality is defensible (if vegetarianism is) or find another feature that distinguishes the two. His only point being that this example of moral reasoning is purely philosophical and not empirical. You completely go off the rails in making assumptions about what Massimo is implying in his article. Seriously, the facepalm is all yours. He does not explore the issue of consent, which is obviously complex. By missing his point so thoroughly you proceed to attack some obvious straw men.

    Being proved scientifically is not the only criterion, as you suggest, for something that can be deemed sufficiently universal that you can justify using it as a basis, for example of a legal system. You make a false dichotomy between science and personal choice. The very point Massimo is making is that you can reject moral relativism without claiming that science can determine moral positions. You can bring logic an reasoning to bear (i.e. philosophy).

    Massimo also makes the point that expanding the definition of science to include all of logic and reason is rigging the game. It’s actually wrong and admits defeat by essentially saying you have to go beyond the traditional definition of science for moral reasoning, to include what is actually philosophy but which Harris wants to surreptitiously rebrand as science.

    As an example, try to prove scientifically, without making any value judgments or using philosophical reasoning, that stealing is wrong (or pick whatever moral judgment you wish).

  48. etatroon 19 Apr 2014 at 3:05 am

    I read Harriet’s responses and she kept going back to what better way to decide moral question than by testing hypotheses. But I don’t see how moral questions can generate testable hypotheses, as I mentioned above. They all go back to a prior premise on the rightness or wrongness of some outcome and then the question is really what’s the evidence supporting that premise. It goes on forever in the same fashion that the creator of the creator of the creator goes on. I think she was goaded into false dichotomies, too. You can think that science does not answer moral questions and also disagree with nihilistic relativism, there’s a lot of spec in between. And we don’t need to freak out and panic that science is an utter failure for it, either.

  49. Bruceon 19 Apr 2014 at 3:51 am

    Changing the subject completely… for those of us in the local area, there are always stories, but when things like this:

    http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/weird-news/nessie-apple-maps-satellite-image-3428464

    gets covered on BBC breakfast news (given it was mostly tongue in cheek), and then gets shared on facebook by all and sundry, you realise that those nonsense topics are always going to be a part of skepticism.

  50. BillyJoe7on 19 Apr 2014 at 5:06 am

    ccbowers,

    Me: “By collecting evidence about the consequences of these ‘oughts’, we can determine which ‘oughts’ are bad and which ‘oughts’ are good. So we are still doing only science.”
    You: “If you are assigning a value judgement, you are not merely doing science”

    You missed the very next few lines:
    Me: “The only guiding principle is: what increases well-being is good and what decreases well-being is bad. He [Sam Harris] takes this as self-evident [that increasing well-being is good]. So still no philosophy.”

    “To say that something is ‘bad’ or ‘good’ is not science…Harris tries to argue that values are “facts” therefore fall under science”

    Okay, so you tell me that one of your values is x.
    That is a fact isn’t it?…one of your values IS x
    You might be lying or joking, but there is a fact of the matter isn’t there?
    In the future it might be possible to scan your brain to determine if you are telling the truth when you say that one of your values is x. But, even now, even if we do not have the technology to verify it, there is still a fact of the matter as to whether or not one of your values is x.

    But Harris’ point is that science can collect evidence about the consequences of having value x and acting on it appropriately, compared with not having it and therefore not acting on it. His yardstick is “well-being”. If having value x and acting appropriately on that value increases well-being, then having value x is good. It it decreases well-being, it is bad.

    Can we always determine whether well-being increases or decreases? No. Does that matter in the context of our discussion? No. There are many things that science is unsure about. In fact, science is unsure about everything, which is why it assigns probabilities rather than certainties. Why should morals be any different? It is more correct to say the Earth is spherical than that it is flat. It is more correct to say that having enough to eat is good than that it is bad. It is more correct to say that FGM is bad than that it is good.
    But, is dark energy the source of the cosmological constant. We don’t know. Is having and acting on value x good or bad. Sometimes we don’t know that either. We cannot always determine if well-being increases or decreases, but there is a fact of the matter whether or not science at present has the technology to access that fact.

    But is there a better way?
    Is philosophy a better way in these cases?
    How does philosophy determine what is good and bad?

    “Another issue is that underpinning his approach is utilitarianism, which is a philosophical position.”

    Consequentialism actually.
    But that is how science works – see what happens! People have value x which they apply appropriately. Look at the consequences of value x in action.

  51. Bill Openthalton 19 Apr 2014 at 9:54 am

    Steven –

    One (this one specifically) would expect a “perfect example of applied ethical philosophy” used by a reputable philosopher not to be based on false premises and an equally false dichotomy. I know he’s telling a story about a not-so-philosophically minded friend, but he cites it as an illustration of why Harris is off the mark. As far as I am concerned, if you’re in the business of telling people how to think, you’d better think thrice before approvingly quoting nonsense.

    As an example, try to prove scientifically, without making any value judgments or using philosophical reasoning, that stealing is wrong (or pick whatever moral judgment you wish).

    I grew up in a part of Africa, where stealing is only a problem if you steal from fellow tribespeople, or when you get caught stealing from another tribe (if you don’t get caught, you’re a minor hero). They also think it’s amoral not to avenge a wrong done to your ancestors (quite similar to the concept of vendetta). Morality is about living together, not about absolutes. Some practices (stealing, corruption, nepotism etc) tend to result in less stable societies, which is why such practices get tagged as morally inferior. To “sell” moral values to individuals, they need to be presented as absolute (or god-given, or something similar), simply because otherwise they are not compelling enough. I’m not suggesting a conspiracy — humans seem to have a need to present the rules of living together they acquired in their formative years as absolutes.

    I already granted that careful and correct reasoning is part of the deal, but usually there is more to philosophy than just that (especially if one invokes the need to have something validated by philosophy). Anything that cannot be “proved” by scientific inquiry and/or logical, coherent thinking has to be a matter of agreement, lest we start granting certain humans the right to determine how others should behave merely because they are “philosophers” (or priests, popes etc).

  52. Steven Novellaon 19 Apr 2014 at 10:15 am

    Bill,

    You just made my point. You used philosophy in your reasoning above, not empiricism. What do you think philosophy is beyond careful and correct reasoning? You could say it develops its own technical terminology in order to capture concepts precisely, but that is part of careful reasoning.

    I don’t think philosophy pretends to be objective or absolute. But that does not mean it is completely subjective either. For example, you can reject moral relativism without resorting to the claim of pure empiricism.

    In your example above – why is a stable society better than a chaotic one? What is more important, freedom or stability?

    When you write: ” Anything that cannot be “proved” by scientific inquiry and/or logical, coherent thinking, ” just like Harris, you are giving the game away. You are expanding the definition of “science” to include philosophy, and then saying that philosophy is not needed. In so doing you are not being precise in your definitions. Also, the word “proved” here is problematic (perhaps why you used the scare quotes, but this deserves exploration, not just scare quotes). You can determine that some moral positions are superior to others without approaching anything like “proof.” When it comes to morals and ethics you can use careful reasoning to establish near universal first principles and then carefully derive an ethical system from there, exploring all the implications of each piece of your reasoning. Along the way you can use science to inform that reasoning, for example by exploring the outcomes of specific ethical stances and human psychology.

    Harris’s and your mistake is to argue that science is all you need, and then science alone can arrive at the one true morality, without messy philosophy. But this is simply not true. Along the way you have to use philosophy, as you just demonstrated above.

    At the very least you have to decide if you are going to use a deontological, utilitarian, or virtue-ethics construct. You also cannot eliminate value judgments from the equation.

  53. Steven Novellaon 19 Apr 2014 at 10:27 am

    BJ7 – But Harris is assuming a specific ethical philosophy, utilitarianism (consequentialism), without ever defining or justifying this choice. I agree with the majority of philosophers who would argue that utilitarianism ultimately does not work. For example, would you kill one person against their will in order to harvest their organs and save 5 people? This would maximize well-being. What if the person you sacrifice is a really bad person and the five people you are going to save are all really good people? Please give me a philosophy-free explanation of your position.

    Keep in mind, if you rely upon an ethical principle to make your point, you are doing philosophy – simply resorting to deontological reasoning over consequentialist reasoning (arguing from principles rather than outcome). Which one is better? How do you balance the two? What do you do when two ethical principles come into conflict?

  54. Bruceon 19 Apr 2014 at 10:29 am

    Slightly relevant, and an opportunity to quote Terry Pratchett:

    “All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

    REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

    “Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

    YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

    “So we can believe the big ones?”

    YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

    “They’re not the same at all!”

    YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

    “Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

    /reminded of it from SBM a few days ago… so can’t even take credit for the quote.

  55. ccbowerson 19 Apr 2014 at 3:52 pm

    BJ7-
    “You missed the very next few lines:
    The only guiding principle is: what increases well-being is good and what decreases well-being is bad. He [Sam Harris] takes this as self-evident [that increasing well-being is good]. So still no philosophy.”

    Sorry, but stating that your philosophical perspective is self evident is not an argument, and does not make it any less of a philosophical perspective. There is a large body of work on this subject and he clearly could have used a better lesson in that. Steve pointed out one of the more obvious problems of consequentialism above.
    Any counter arguments to these criticisms are not scientific ones, but philosophical ones.

    “But is there a better way?
    Is philosophy a better way in these cases?
    How does philosophy determine what is good and bad?”

    It’s not a question of choosing science or philosophy. You must used the best information (science) available, and you must use philosophy make sense how the science fits with the moral questions. Philosophy determines what is good and bad by taking the best information available and using logic/argument to explore the implications of the science in determining what is moral. That is not all- like science the arguments are subject to scrutiny from peers, and through arguments and counter arguments, progress is made. Yes, scientists can and do engage in these discussions for many topics, and at the borders of certain subjects the differences between the scientists and philosophers are hard to distinguish. Morality is probably not the best example of this type of subject.

  56. ccbowerson 19 Apr 2014 at 4:05 pm

    “Note:
    When Sam Harris says ‘well-being’ he means ‘general well-being,’ not the well-being of one group at the expense of another. The well-being is not necessarily immediate and there may be a initial period of decreased well-being leading to a later period of well-being that is greater that with which you started.
    And there are lots of different types of well-being for different individuals and groups of individuals on different times and places, which is what leads to his concept of ‘the moral landscape.’ ”

    BJ7 – The only thing I want to point out here is that none of the above is based upon any scientific understandings. He (or perhaps you) is making a specific philosophical argument that the basis of judging ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ should be related to a specific consequences, and to some degree there is some information above with regards to how we should view this well being.

    This is not coming from science, which I think you and Harris would acknowledge. I know that he is arguing that the above is self evident, but clearly there are many aspects of this to parse and there are areas of this with which others disagree. To deny these issues is an “argument by assertion.” Arguing by assertion does not allow one to claim that you are not doing philosophy. This is an area in which philosophy is needed to address these questions/problems.

  57. BillyJoe7on 20 Apr 2014 at 6:57 am

    Steven Novella,

    “But Harris is assuming a specific ethical philosophy, utilitarianism (consequentialism), without ever defining or justifying this choice”

    I’m not sure that is true.

    What he is saying is that people have values (be they intuitive or reasoned). These values lead them to act in certain ways. That is simply ordinary cause and effect. Their values are the cause, and their actions are the effect. Of course their actions may be in line with their values because, for example, they may not be very good at choosing actions based on their values. Or their actions may be only partly in line with their values. A scientific examination of both their values and their actions can, in principle, or mto a greater or lesser degree of success, determine whether their actions ARE in line with their values and to what extent. Science can also, in principle, or to a greater or lesser degree of success, determine the conseqences of their actions both in short term, to probably a lesser degree of success, in long term.

    In other words, Sam Harris’ consequentialism is like scientifically examining cause and effect rather than philosophically judging whether values are good or bad depending on the consequences of acting on these values.

    “I agree with the majority of philosophers who would argue that utilitarianism ultimately does not work”

    In other words, you agree with the majority of philospohers who argue that you cannot judge whether a value if good or bad based on the consequences of acting in line with that value?
    Well, Sam Harris might agree with you, but maybe for a different reason…

    “For example, would you kill one person against their will in order to harvest their organs and save 5 people? This would maximize well-being.”

    Are you certain about that?
    Because, it’s simply not as straight forward as you seem to make out.

    What would be the consequences of killing one person in order to harvest his or her organs to save five people? Firstly, the killed person now has zero well-being whereas before he may have had a measure of positive well-being. And that person has friends and family. How would their well-being be affected by having their relative or friend killed, albeit to save five others? What is the effect on the five people who lives are saved and their family and friends? What effect on the well-being of the five people knowing that a person has been killed so they can live? What effect on you, knowing that you have killed someone, albeit to save five others – especially knowing that their well-being, and that of their family and friends, could be adversely affected by knowing a person had to be killed so they can live. And, besides all that, you could end up in prison. What effect would that have on your well-being and that of your family and friends. And yet another consideration: what would be the effect on the well-being of the general population, knowing that at any moment they could be the next in line to be killed to benefit five others. Perhaps everyone will decide to ensure that they are decidedly unhealthy so as to avoid being chosen.

    Is it ever justified to kill one person in order to harvest their organs to save five people?
    Well, it is possible that we may never know the answer to this question (of whether or not, overall, well-being would be improved by doing this in any particular circumstances), in which case we would leave things as they are. In other words, leave thing as they are, unless and until we can determine scientifically that the consequences are an increase rather than a decrease in well-being.

    “What if the person you sacrifice is a really bad person and the five people you are going to save are all really good people?”

    That removes perhaps only a little from one side of the ledger.
    Can you be certain that the consequences, both short and long term, would lead to an increase instead of a decrease in well-being?

    The other thing Sam Harris would say is that these impossible-to-answer questions don’t make any difference to his claims. In all areas of science there are questions that cannot be answered. What is dark matter and dark energy, and why is the universe expanding at an increasing rate? We don’t know. But we do know why there is a precession in the perihelion of mercury. Likewise, we don’t know if killing one person to save five will increase or decrease well-being in any particular circumstances. But we do know that killing a person in cold blood does decrease well-being.
    We can’t demand that a scientific investigation of morals and ethics answer every question when we don’t demand this of the rest of science.

  58. BillyJoe7on 20 Apr 2014 at 7:23 am

    ccbowers,

    “Sorry, but stating that your philosophical perspective is self evident is not an argument”

    In other words, you don’t think that the statement: “A value that decreases well-being is bad” is self-evident? In other words you need proof that a value that decreases well-being is bad? You need proof, for example, that randomly killing someone in cold blood is bad?

    If so, do you hold all of science to these standards? Can you ever prove gravity exists by these standards? Can you ever prove that there is a reality outside your brain? That you are not just a brain in a vat, or a pattern of digits in a computer?

    “Sorry, but stating that your philosophical perspective is self evident is not an argument”

    If something is self-evident, it has nothing to do with philosophy or a philosophical perspective. It is just a given that every reasonable person with agree…is self-evident.

    ” Philosophy determines what is good and bad by taking the best information available and using logic/argument to explore the implications of the science in determining what is moral.”

    That is what Sam Harris is arguing against.
    It does not further your argument to simply state that your claim that he is arguing against is true.

  59. Bill Openthalton 20 Apr 2014 at 9:31 am

    Steven –

    When you write: ” Anything that cannot be “proved” by scientific inquiry and/or logical, coherent thinking, ” just like Harris, you are giving the game away. You are expanding the definition of “science” to include philosophy, and then saying that philosophy is not needed. In so doing you are not being precise in your definitions. Also, the word “proved” here is problematic (perhaps why you used the scare quotes, but this deserves exploration, not just scare quotes).

    Restricting science to empiricism is just as much a redefinition as extending it to include careful, logical and coherent thinking. Without thought, the only thing science could do would be to observe (which is already quite something). As I said, philosophy started out as the science of its day, and was very much about how to think well. People like Aquinas (I read Thomistic Philosophy at university) used it to prove god exists, formulating it in a subtle and highfalutin way to convince the vulgum pecus they were right. Only later did the practice of science extend to including observation.

    Side note: I used scare quotes because science never proves anything, which is used by its detractors to claim that their unverifiable opinions are equally valid.

    You can determine that some moral positions are superior to others without approaching anything like “proof.” When it comes to morals and ethics you can use careful reasoning to establish near universal first principles and then carefully derive an ethical system from there, exploring all the implications of each piece of your reasoning.

    This is where I disagree — like mathematics, you can settle on a number of postulates, and through careful reasoning derive a coherent structure based on these postulates. The postulates themselves are a matter of agreement. The postulates seem self-evident, and are obvious under the conditions available to those who formulated them, but there is no way to prove them by careful and rational thought. They can only be disproved by observation — like parallel lines that would intersect somewhere for all to see.

    Moral relativism has a bad rap. I indicated why I believe it has — humans need absolutes to stop (most of) them from exploring the socially unacceptable, and to convince the others to punish the transgressors severely (to the point of killing them). Still, everything points to the absence of an absolute morality, even at the level of humanity.

    why is a stable society better than a chaotic one? What is more important, freedom or stability?

    If a stable society out-competes a chaotic one, it will survive, and be better (for certain values of better :) ). For some people, freedom is more important, others prefer stability. No human (or group of humans) can lay claim to having the moral upper hand, though most of them do so, and most of them have tried to use philosophy to prove they had access to the absolute morality.

    If it’s not amenable to science, it’s a matter of choice, and careful reasoning tells me there is no reason why my choice is better than someone else’s choice (and vice-versa).

  60. ccbowerson 20 Apr 2014 at 10:28 am

    “In other words, Sam Harris’ consequentialism is like scientifically examining cause and effect rather than philosophically judging whether values are good or bad depending on the consequences of acting on these values.”

    This is not correct. If he were merely examining cause and effect, then science really couldn’t “determine human values,” which is precisely what he is arguing. I agree that determining the match between peoples’ actions and values is critical (this is where science is at work), but in doing this alone, we never get to evaluate their values to begin with. A discussion of these values, and how these values impact the world in principle and in practice, and comparing them to competing values requires both science and philosophy.

    Let me pose a question, compare people’s attitudes towards right and wrong 1000 years ago to today. Do you see progress? Do you think this progress is only due to progress of science? I think you could reduce the time frame to 10-20 years and see that the progress is not merely due to the progress of science. So if the progress we have made has other causes besides a scientific understanding, why would think that science alone is all that is needed to progress further?

    “In other words, you don’t think that the statement: ‘A value that decreases well-being is bad’ is self-evident? In other words you need proof that a value that decreases well-being is bad? You need proof, for example, that randomly killing someone in cold blood is bad?”

    It is not self evident because it (consequentialism) is insufficient on its own to use as a moral framework for a large society. Using an example of a single action is insufficient to show why this is. It is incomplete as an ethical system because of the implications and complexities of human interactions in larger and larger groups. Your analysis of the harvesting one person’s organs is demonstrates the complexity of this analysis, but I think that people’s objections to the harvesting could be made separately from adding up everyone’s wellbeing. In other words, there are other considerations here that are insufficiently captured in a vague well-being analysis. IMO, it is overly reductionist for certain analyses, but I agree that it does work well enough for some things, and is at least a good tool to use.

  61. ccbowerson 20 Apr 2014 at 10:29 am

    Anyways, I do not think that the major disagreement is about any of those (above) things. The disagreement is mostly about Harris arguing that it is science alone that can determine morality, and that is clearly incorrect… unless you include aspects of philosophy as science or you assume you philosophical position through assertion. Neither of these approaches are acceptable.

  62. Bill Openthalton 20 Apr 2014 at 11:05 am

    ccbowers –

    Let me pose a question, compare people’s attitudes towards right and wrong 1000 years ago to today. Do you see progress?

    I see change. I see people who like the change, and those who dislike it. I see a shift in majorities (or at least in the utterances of people in the public eye).

    Do you think this progress is only due to progress of science? I think you could reduce the time frame to 10-20 years and see that the progress is not merely due to the progress of science. So if the progress we have made has other causes besides a scientific understanding, why would think that science alone is all that is needed to progress further?

    Now that you’ve made clear you do like the changes, and that you do not think they come from increased knowledge of reality, how are you going to convince those who dislike them that they represent progress? Science deals with reality, with that what someone has to accept, however grudgingly, or use the same objective methods to disprove it. Anything else is personal preference.

    In any case, I don’t think the argument was that progress of science (i.e. a better understanding of reality) necessarily means we will see a progress in human behaviour (along an axis going in your moral direction). The argument is that if you cannot prove it using objective methods, your gut feel isn’t preferable to mine, once we’re no longer talking about ourselves.

    Morality is about organizing society. Obviously, a majority will believe that the ways of today are better than the ways of yesterday, because they grew up in this society, and accepted its ways as the correct ways to organize a(ny) society. Humans are not born with a built-in social structure, just with the ability to discover the social structure they grow up in, and use the discovered structure as normative.

  63. ccbowerson 20 Apr 2014 at 2:24 pm

    “Science deals with reality, with that what someone has to accept, however grudgingly, or use the same objective methods to disprove it. Anything else is personal preference.”

    This is a misunderstanding of science, and the creation of a false dichtomy… either having the purely objective or the completely arbitrary. Neither extreme works very well to describe any human endevour.

    You are demonstrating a very black-and-white thinking. Science does not ‘deal with reality;’ that is metaphysics. Science ‘deals’ with coming up with hypotheses and testing them, and generating theories that best fit the data. These theories can then be used to make predictions, and we can then test them again to determine if these theories hold up under various circumstances.

    As science progresses, over time our theories better account for what we observe around us and they make better predictions. Note, this is not about accessing ‘reality’ in metaphysical sense. You may think of this as nitpicking, but I think his is a simplistic view that leads you astray.

    My view seems to be extremely similar to Steve’s. Although I cannot say exactly the same, I have not disagreed with anything he has said thus far on this subject. And it is not for a lack of trying… I enjoy such disagreements (among well informed individuals versus uninformed opinions).

    You seem to disregard certain types of progress as completely arbitrary, like such progress is a matter of person preference (as trivial as “how do you like your eggs?”) With regards to morality, that is the perspective of a moral relativist. I suggest that you visit the large body of work criticizing such a view.

  64. Bill Openthalton 20 Apr 2014 at 4:48 pm

    ccbowers –

    Science is the best method humans have devised to learn about reality objectively. Metaphysics is talk. Humans are like trilobites — the universe existed before humanity, it will exist after we’ve left the scene, and all our metaphysical waffle will not have made one iota of difference. Unlike trilobites (I’m going out on a limb here :) ), we can hope to understand reality with some degree of accuracy, but that will not be through discoursing on first causes, the unchanging, or whatever constitutes being.

    Mind you, these things are important to a number of people (mainly philosophers :) ), but they are figments of human imagination, like unicorns and elves and gods. As long as we have resources to spend on other things than staying alive, metaphysics is as deserving of mental investment as any other form of art.

    Science ‘deals’ with coming up with hypotheses and testing them, and generating theories that best fit the data. These theories can then be used to make predictions, and we can then test them again to determine if these theories hold up under various circumstances.

    You describe the scientific method. Science is what we know about reality. Philosophy can be useful in the sense that it informs us on ourselves, which is very useful for a species that manages to extract marvelous cooperation from genetically diverse individuals — we manage to be independent individuals that cooperate better than pre-programmed clones. We are used to it, but speaking as an anthropologist from Mars, let me tell you this is truly astounding.

    I accept scientific knowledge (even if I don’t like it) because it comes from a reliable source (this is what peer-review is all about), and because I know I can re-run the procedures and produce the results if I so wished. Thus, I can use this knowledge without having to verify everything myself, and I can make more efficient use of my resources. With metaphysics (or the type of philosophy one would use to “validate” ethics) there is no way I can independently verify anything. If memory serves, it is taught ex cathedra, by people who get their credibility from having been taught by people who have been taught by people who have produced books their followers admire (or detest, if they are from a different school).

    I enjoy such disagreements (among well informed individuals versus uninformed opinions).

    This reminds me of the “put-down” I received from a Jesuit I was discussing theology with. He told me in no uncertain terms that unless I had read all the stuff he had read, I should not be so pretentious as to doubt his informed utterances.

    You seem to disregard certain types of progress as completely arbitrary, like such progress is a matter of person preference …

    You indicated that you think our current attitudes to right and wrong are objectively better than those of 1000 years ago (closer to the absolute good, so to speak). They are better adapted to our current society no doubt, but the odds are they would fail miserably in 1014 CE. Mind you, I do prefer the society we live in, but that is because I grew up in this society. I would be hopelessly ill-adapted to the Roman Empire, or Imperial China, or even Victorian England, and probably desperately unhappy if I were transported there. But that doesn’t mean that the people living there would necessarily be unhappy; in all likelihood there would have been a similar distribution of happiness and unhappiness as today.

    Have you ever tried to convince a devout muslim or christian fundamentalist that their attitude towards women is morally inferior to our society’s attitude? Ask yourself how you could prove this with philosophy, to the point that they would (grudgingly) agree…

  65. BillyJoe7on 20 Apr 2014 at 7:24 pm

    ccbowers,

    “If he were merely examining cause and effect, then science really couldn’t “determine human values,” which is precisely what he is arguing”

    That IS what he is arguing. My point is that you are not addressing his ARGUMENTS. You are claiming that he is wrong WITHOUT addressing his arguments. Sam Harris writes a whole book attempting to explain how you CAN – contrary to popular opinion – get an “ought” from and “is”, and you respond by repeating that popular opinion that as if it’s just an undeniable, undisputable fact of life since David Hume pronounced it a few centures ago (like 2+2=4 as Sean Carroll responded at the time).

    “I agree that determining the match between peoples’ actions and values is critical (this is where science is at work), but in doing this alone, we never get to evaluate their values to begin with.”

    I didn’t say it did.
    Values are determined to be good or bad, firstly, by determing whether people’s actions match their expressed values, secondly, by shifting out those actions that do match the expressed values from those that don’t, thirdly, by determining the consequences of those actions, and fourthly, by determining if those consequences increase or decrease well-being. Those that increase well-being are good. Those that decrease well-being are bad.

    “A discussion of these values, and how these values impact the world in principle and in practice, and comparing them to competing values requires both science and philosophy”

    You state that it requires both science and philosophy.
    Sam Harris explains how it requires only science.
    So far, you have a statement and he has an argument.

    “Let me pose a question, compare people’s attitudes towards right and wrong 1000 years ago to today. Do you see progress? Do you think this progress is only due to progress of science? I think you could reduce the time frame to 10-20 years and see that the progress is not merely due to the progress of science. So if the progress we have made has other causes besides a scientific understanding, why would think that science alone is all that is needed to progress further?”

    I haven’t had the time to read “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, but I didn’t realise it was pitted against “The Moral Landscape”. Especially when Steven Pinker had this to say about “The Moral Landscape”:

    A lively, provocative, and timely new look at one of the deepest problems in the world of ideas. Harris makes a powerful case for a morality that is based on human flourishing and thoroughly enmeshed with science and rationality. It is a tremendously appealing vision, and one that no thinking person can afford to ignore

    “It is not self evident because it (consequentialism) is insufficient on its own to use as a moral framework for a large society”

    Firstly, Sam Harris is using the word “consequentialism” in its scientific sense of “cause and effect”.
    Secondly, what he is claiming is self-evident is: if a moral value (the cause) leads to an action (the effect) which increases well-being, then that moral value is good.
    You have still not shown why we should not take that as a self-evident truth.

    “Using an example of a single action is insufficient to show why this is. It is incomplete as an ethical system because of the implications and complexities of human interactions in larger and larger groups”

    You have to start somewhere. And you don’t just throw up our hands when things get a bit more complicated. You just try harder. You acknowledge that you can’t know everything, but you know that that doesn’t mean you know nothing. But what reason is there to believe that philosophy can come to the recsue when things get more comlicated? Where is the track record of philosophy as opposed to science?

    “I think that people’s objections to the harvesting could be made separately from adding up everyone’s wellbeing”

    But are these objections just opinions? Are there people who can justify the harvesting? And are their justifications just opinions? How do we adjudicate these various objections and justifications? Sam Harris says it is on the basis of well-being. What is your yardstick(s).

    “In other words, there are other considerations here that are insufficiently captured in a vague well-being analysis”

    But what are those considerations.
    You never seem to say.
    What considerations other than “well-being” can be used to judge a value as being good or bad

  66. BillyJoe7on 20 Apr 2014 at 7:34 pm

    Bill,

    ccbowers: “I enjoy such disagreements (among well informed individuals versus uninformed opinions)”

    You: “This reminds me of the “put-down” I received from a Jesuit I was discussing theology with. He told me in no uncertain terms that unless I had read all the stuff he had read, I should not be so pretentious as to doubt his informed utterances.”

    I’m pretty sure he was not putting you down.
    In other words, I think he’s saying that he is enjoying the disagreement.

    As a side note: arguing that you must have read everything that has ever been written on theology in order to reject the existence of god is like saying that you must have read everything that has ever been written about faeries in order to reject the existence of faeries.

  67. ccbowerson 20 Apr 2014 at 10:10 pm

    “You describe the scientific method. Science is what we know about reality.”

    Bill O. Science are a collection of methods and information obtained from them, but they are not a set of facts about reality. You have precisely backwards.

    I find that in this discussion, there is a tendency for you (and BJ7 to some extent)
    to frame this as a science versus philosophy discussion, but that is not the conversation I am having. I am talking about the nature of philosophy and science.

    “This reminds me of the “put-down” I received from a Jesuit I was discussing theology with. He told me in no uncertain terms that unless I had read all the stuff he had read, I should not be so pretentious as to doubt his informed utterances. ”

    If that reminds you of that conversation, you have a reading comprehension problem. I was not even referring to you in that statement, and even if I were it should be interpreted as BJ7 understood it.

    “You indicated that you think our current attitudes to right and wrong are objectively better than those of 1000 years ago (closer to the absolute good, so to speak). They are better adapted to our current society no doubt, but the odds are they would fail miserably in 1014 CE.”

    It is not just fashion or whim, it is actual progress. There is clear signal over time of increasing the value of life, of decrease violence towards other humans and animals, of critically viewing our collective and individual roles in the universe. Of course there are ups and downs overtime, but the trend is very obvious. It is not merely because we live in our current society… do you doubt that if we transported people from 1000 years ago, and had them stay for a year in modern day US, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, etc. that the vast majority would not want to go back?

    “Have you ever tried to convince a devout muslim or christian fundamentalist that their attitude towards women is morally inferior to our society’s attitude? Ask yourself how you could prove this with philosophy, to the point that they would (grudgingly) agree…”

    If you are talking about a single conversation, well no. Science is not going to do that either, but that is not a realistic goal. Notice that the devouts of today are likely progressive relative to the those of the past.

  68. ccbowerson 20 Apr 2014 at 10:34 pm

    “That IS what he is arguing. My point is that you are not addressing his ARGUMENTS. You are claiming that he is wrong WITHOUT addressing his arguments.”

    Actually I did. Also read Steve’s take, which I agree with. My point is that he is claiming that science can determine morality (i.e.what is right and wrong) using only science, and he simply fails to demonstrate this. He fails to do so because he assumes a philosophical position of consequentialism (a specfic form of utilitarianism), but fails to acknowledge this as taking a position at all. Also, he fails to address the flaws/limitations of consequentialism, because he is arguing that it is self evident.

    “Sam Harris explains how it requires only science.”

    He does not accomplish this goal. Around and around we go. Is this Sonic? (I joke)

    “Firstly, Sam Harris is using the word ‘consequentialism’ in its scientific sense of ’cause and effect.’
    Secondly, what he is claiming is self-evident is: if a moral value (the cause) leads to an action (the effect) which increases well-being, then that moral value is good.”

    You (and he) are glossing over this. There is a lot to this “well being” measure and it does impact whether consequentialism could really work as the sole basis for morality. You can pretend it is scientific – but valuing well being is no obvious measure, and it takes much analysis to see if it really could work as the sole basis for morality. Whose well being? Is it additive? Are we weighting it from person to person. How does the well being of one compare to the well being of 2 or 10 or 50 billion? If destroying the lives of a few could increase the well being of a million people by a tiny amount is that moral? These are philosophical explorations. Sure we need science to help answer some these questions, but the questions themselves are not self evident. To simplify these issues by reducing the discussion to a vague “well being” does not make them go away. It in fact does very little but make your complex problem seem simpler.

    “Especially when Steven Pinker had this to say about “The Moral Landscape”:”

    Thats fine. I am not arguing that the Moral Landscape is not interesting or worth reading, but I did not find it as elightening. I really had only a few issues with the book, but I realize what he was trying to accomplish is no small task. Steven Pinker probably had much respect for the work, because he is also not afraid to make provocative works and stick his neck out. There is much to admire about that, but that doesn’t stop me from disagreeing vigorously when I think they are wrong.

  69. ccbowerson 20 Apr 2014 at 10:58 pm

    “But what reason is there to believe that philosophy can come to the recsue when things get more comlicated? Where is the track record of philosophy as opposed to science?”

    I think this gets to our talking past each other. You seem to frame this as if science is the only approach, and philosophy is just a matter of taste (like Bill O). But once we have done the science and have the best information available, the next tool we have is philosophy to make sense of the complexity, to help sort out the information by the tools of philosophy. These include applied reason, carefully fleshing out concepts with and terminologies, and a body of work that explores the complexities of these complex topics. Now you could argue that ‘anyone’ could do this, but like all people with an expertise, those who have spent their lives doing these things tend to do them better from the experience. There are certainly scientists who are well trained in these things, but most are not. It doesn’t take this type of training to do most types of science.

    I don’t mean to make an insult here, but the need to ground morality to something viewed as objective (as Bill O has argued) reminds me of a certain Zach- although in his case he was arguing for religious grounding. I think we need to be comfortable with the idea of arguing for a better morality through applied rationality, which has many grays (i.e greys =). Yes, science can be a big part of the equation to best inform our decisions, but ultimately we will have to convince others that certain things are worth valuing. Of course someone could disagree, but so what? Some people could also just disagree that your wellbeing is as important as their’s or that logic is not as important as how they feel. We don’t fail if we don’t create a monolithic society, but we can progress through evidence, arguments and informed discussions.

  70. BillyJoe7on 20 Apr 2014 at 11:52 pm

    ccbowers,

    “My point is that he is claiming that science can determine morality (i.e.what is right and wrong) using only science, and he simply fails to demonstrate this. He fails to do so because he assumes a philosophical position of consequentialism (a specfic form of utilitarianism), but fails to acknowledge this as taking a position at all. Also, he fails to address the flaws/limitations of consequentialism, because he is arguing that it is self evident”

    I have already explained that he means consequences of actions (moral value -> action taken on the basis of this moral value -> consequences of these actions taken on the basis of this moral value), which is quite a bit different from the philosophical position of consequentialism.

    And I have already explained that he is not saying that consequentialism is self-evident, he is arguing that it is self-evident that a moral value that leads to action based on this moral value which has consequences that increase well-being is good.

    So, it seems to me that you are NOT addressing his arguments.
    You are addressing what you claim are his argments.

    “but valuing well being is no obvious measure”

    If you can’t agree that well-being is a self-evident measuring stick of whether a value is good, then I suppose it’s a waste of time reading his book. We are not talking here about whether it is possible to determine if there is a an increase in well-being, only that, IF there IS an increase in well-being then that moral value is good. Is this a self-evident truth or is it not (in your opinion)?
    Your questions about well-being (in the quote that follows) address the problem of whether or to what extent it is possible to determine that there is an increase or dsecrease in well-being. As I said before, Sam Harris goes to great lengths in his book to agree that this is a difficult problem to solve.

    “Whose well being? Is it additive? Are we weighting it from person to person. How does the well being of one compare to the well being of 2 or 10 or 50 billion? If destroying the lives of a few could increase the well being of a million people by a tiny amount is that moral? These are philosophical explorations”

    So I guess we are back to definiton of what is science. Those questions can all be stated or restated as scientific hypotheses. Are scientific hypotheses philosophical explorations, in your opinion? Are they tools used by science? Or are they part and parcel of doing science? In any case, the philosophical tools (if that is how you want to describe them) used by science only ask questions (pose hypotheses). The solutions, if there are solutions, are all in the hands of science. That is Sam Harris’ point.

    “To simplify these issues by reducing the discussion to a vague “well being” does not make them go away. It in fact does very little but make your complex problem seem simpler”

    Sam Harris is at pains to explain that it does not make a complex problem simpler. Except in very straight forward cases (killing randomly in cold blood), it is actually very difficult to determine if well-being is increased or decreased. But there is *in principle* a solution and, if *in practise* a solution can be found, science is the only way to do so in these complex cases.

    “Around and around we go. Is this Sonic? (I joke)”

    Well, at the risk of emulating the merry-go-round world of our dear little friend, sonic (oh, was that a put down?), perhaps we should stop here.
    I have certainly clarified my thinking on this subject as a result of this discussion. My opinions about “The Moral Landscape” are not set in stone, but I’m not satisfied that I’ve seen a knock out blow against his position. And, while I do think it is partly a matter of definition, I don’t think that it is entirely so.

  71. sonicon 21 Apr 2014 at 2:10 am

    Is ‘well being’ a measurable quantity, and if so, what are the units?

    If it is not a measurable quantity, then what good is it to try to ‘increase’ or ‘decrease’ it?

  72. The Other John Mcon 21 Apr 2014 at 7:36 am

    sonic, is ‘happiness’ really a measureable quantity, and if not, does this imply it would be useless to increase it? We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking ‘difficult to measure’ implies ‘just give up on it’. I agree it would be difficult or squirrely to measure but so is ‘medical health’ (which Sam Harris describes in relation to this line of disagreement), and so are half the concepts in modern psychology, for instance, which provides enough foundation to build an experimental science.

  73. Johnnyon 21 Apr 2014 at 9:41 am

    Steve, how do you feel about cooperation with similar (but not identical) groups like secular humanists or activist atheists on issues of common concern, such as for example opposition to creationism? Do you think it is okay, or even good, or do you think there will be risk for mission creep for the skeptics?

  74. Steven Novellaon 21 Apr 2014 at 9:50 am

    BJ7 – the irony is, in defending your position you have been arguing philosophically. I think you are using some fuzzy definitions (like “well being”) and this is muddying your position, because deciding on what well-being is, is largely philosophical. This can be informed by explorations into human nature, but not determined by it. What is natural, even for humans, is not necessarily what is best.

    Again – these are all philosophical questions. What you and Harris are doing is using philosophical reasoning to get to a position where empiricism can determine morality, then saying philosophy is not necessary. Saying it is “self-evident” does not get you out of doing philosophy.

    In other words – in order to defend the position that the philosophical underpinnings of morality are minimal and self-evidence, Harris (and you) have to use fuzzy definitions (like “well-being”) to obscure all the philosophical nuance.

    As a further example, you defend consequentialism and argue from that basis, but then deny that is your position by adding elements that are flirting with virtue-ethics.

    You write:”And I have already explained that he is not saying that consequentialism is self-evident, he is arguing that it is self-evident that a moral value that leads to action based on this moral value which has consequences that increase well-being is good.”

    But you just defined consequentialism, which is just moral reasoning based on consequences.

    Keep in mind, I am not saying consequences don’t matter. I think they get you pretty far in moral reasoning. They are just not enough. You also have to consider first principles, context, and the interaction between an individual’s moral concept of themselves and the consequences of their actions, including their intentions.

    At the end of the day I don’t think we would come to different moral judgments about things. It also seems that we agree in the rejection of moral relativism.

    Where we disagree is in Harris’s position that morality can be (even theoretically, if not practically) entirely empirical without the need for philosophical reasoning.

  75. BillyJoe7on 21 Apr 2014 at 10:00 am

    Well, there you go, here we are trying to increase our health and well-being by nuturing our family relations and friendships, eating a few few fruits and vegies each day, doing a little exercise a few days each week, updating our professional knowledge when the need arises, and taking a bit of a break away every now and then. But, hold on one goddamn cotton pickin’ minute! I mean, time out!
    Let’s all just figure out first which units we’re going to measure that in.

  76. ccbowerson 21 Apr 2014 at 10:06 am

    “Your questions about well-being (in the quote that follows) address the problem of whether or to what extent it is possible to determine that there is an increase or dsecrease in well-being. As I said before, Sam Harris goes to great lengths in his book to agree that this is a difficult problem to solve.”

    Actually, I think precisely nailing down the nature of this “well being” is essential to being able to scientifically study it. How one person’s well-being can be compared to another, or several others, are not trivial questions. Also, whether well-being is sufficient to capture what we should look at when we judge actions is another. These are not simply scientific questions either, but largely philosophical ones. Yes, I agree that once you do this, science can answer the imporant questions about it, but that is glossing over the most important and difficult questions. This is glossing over the philosophy that he/you is arguing is not needed.

    Sorry if my Sonic comment insulted you or him. Just a joke really, alluding to your round about conversations over the years.

  77. ccbowerson 21 Apr 2014 at 10:07 am

    I need not see Steve’s comments above, but there is overlap in content, I think.

  78. Steven Novellaon 21 Apr 2014 at 10:15 am

    - You are trying, now through mockery, to oversimplify the concept of well-being by picking a few low-hanging fruit.

    Let’s take a more complex example – lying. Is lying wrong? What if you are lying to Nazi’s in order to hide Jewish refugees? We can judge each instance of truth-telling or lying based upon the immediate consequences, but I think most people would also want to consider distant consequences, such as eroding trust, and the effect casual lying has on the one doing the lying. How do we balance all of these factors? What is more important, the immediate consequences or the long-term effects of the fabric of trust in society? What if the society itself is unjust?

    Valid moral reasoning requires a consideration of all these factors, and requires value judgments about the relative value of trust vs justice, for example.

    Again, Harris wants to white wash over all of this philosophical complexity by saying that, theoretically, we could put everything into a powerful computer simulation and come out with the answer that maximizes ill-defined “well-being”. This is not about quibbling over units.

  79. The Other John Mcon 21 Apr 2014 at 10:16 am

    I agree that if Harris really, truly wants to start a science of morality, he needs to operationalize his definitions of “well-being” and “good/bad” and related concepts. I don’t think it’s impossible, and think it’s worth looking into, but I don’t get why he wouldn’t have laid out a way forward in this regard.

  80. sonicon 21 Apr 2014 at 6:16 pm

    the other john mac-
    Happiness is not a measurable quantity and it is worthless to attempt to increase it.
    First we agree that ‘x’ would make us both happy, then we can try to achieve ‘x’.

    It is in the picking of ‘x’ that the value judgements become clear.

    “we want ‘happiness’,” is tautological.

  81. The Other John Mcon 22 Apr 2014 at 8:06 am

    sonic, are you literally with a straight face claiming it is worthless to attempt to increase happiness? Because that’s what it looks like you are saying. Please clarify.

    Also, happiness is obvioulsy not a *directly* measureable quantity like temperature or velocity, but that does not mean it is strictly unmeasurable. We are wading into the field of psychometrics here, but there is a sophisticated 150+ year history of dealing with the issues of measuring hard-to-get-at subjective constructs.

    link on psychometrics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychometrics
    link showing how happiness can be measured, with good intro and review of topic: http://my.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/496/subjective-happiness-scale.pdf

    The punchline is that I think a scientific field of morality/ethics would have to follow a similar history and progression that has already been tread for similar types of psychological constructs, or what people above are referring to as “ethics”, “good versus bad”, “well-being”, “right versus wrong”, etc. Again, the real trick is clearly defining and operationalizing your definitions as step #1.

  82. BillyJoe7on 22 Apr 2014 at 8:27 am

    Steven Novella,

    Sorry, like ccbowers, I didn’t see your comment last time I responded here. My last comment was actually in response to sonic’s post – and it was friendly mockery (we have a long history here).

    No, in fact I appreciate your responses (and that of ccbowers) to what I have written. The views I have expressed here are largely what I took away from reading Sam Harris’ book – I’ve been trying to flesh out his arguments to see if they stand up to criticism. It’s a pity we can’t get him to comment here himself – that would be interesting! – because I’ve probably not done him justice. I’ve never really taken too much interest in philosophy , and maybe that’s also a problem. To me it seems there’s as many philosophical views as there are philosophers, but maybe there’s a consensus in philosophy as there is in science).

  83. Steven Novellaon 22 Apr 2014 at 9:35 am

    BJ7 – thanks for clarifying.

    John Mc – I’m all for happiness. I prefer to be happy when possible. But I don’t think that we can consider happiness an absolute and unmitigated good.

    It’s quite possible that being content and happy all the time comes at the expense of motivation. Civilization was not built on happiness and contentment. Anxiety is highly motivating. This entire blog is largely driven by me being pissed off or annoyed at something or other. There is a necessary unhappiness that is part of ambition.

    We also crave a sense of the profound, of meaning, and feeling fulfilled. These are partly driven by conflict.

    This is perhaps the ultimate irony of human existence – that we need a certain amount of unhappiness. If we ever achieve our goals of perpetual bliss, we will lose an important part of our humanity.

  84. The Other John Mcon 22 Apr 2014 at 9:49 am

    Hi Dr. N, I completely agree and think that “perpetual bliss” is a non-existent, unachievable goal that we nonetheless strive for and never quite achieve (get that stupid carrot!). We seemed to have evolved this way, and I do see the irony present in this realization. Research on psychology of happiness makes clear we quickly return to baseline levels, either after hitting lotto (yay) or surviving trauma (boo); a common feature of our neural system (adaptation).

    The point I was driving at is that it doesn’t seem impossible to me that we could start building a science of ethics of sorts, if not as comprehensively as imagined by Harris, but I agree with his distractors that we need something to measure (and I disagree with his distractors that these concepts are un-measureable).

  85. sonicon 22 Apr 2014 at 12:43 pm

    The Other John Mc-
    If happiness can be measured by a questionnaire, then happiness is measurable.
    The units would involve how the questionnaire answers are evaluated.

    I note that the paper you send me to that has a ‘happiness’ test that involves 4 questions that ask if the subject if he is happy or not .

    From the paper you sent me to–
    “The happy man is not he who seems thus to others, but who seems thus to
    himself.
    Publilius Syrus ”

    So we can measure happiness by asking if a person is happy or not. And we can quantize the total happiness by the number of the 4 questions answered positively or negatively.

    Is that what you are saying?

  86. The Other John Mcon 22 Apr 2014 at 1:06 pm

    Hi sonic,

    I typically would prefer a self-report rating scale with more than 4 items, but they originally tested 13 items I believe and whittled it down to 4 from there, which is common to do a reduction like that for scale development.

    We can measure happiness but it is not going to be a quantity like heat or speed (a ratio value). It is typically treated, at least conceptually, as an ordinal value. See link about “levels of measurement” from here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychometrics#Definition_of_measurement_in_the_social_sciences

    This means we don’t talk about the “quantities” of happiness as having some real-world understandable value, but the measures do allow us to see changes in happiness over time, they allow us to compare different groups on their happiness, they allow us to see changes due to experimental manipulations. This is how an experimental science can be developed from these tricky, subjective, admittedly messy measurements.

    One way to improve this state of affairs is to supplement the subjective measures (self-reports) with lots of other self-report scales that purport to measure happiness, alternative rating scales that measure related concepts, and also objective measurements that can be related to the variable of interest with some level of confidence. For instance, in the link I provided awhile back, the authors mention these as alternative/supplemental measures of “happiness”:
    - informant data
    - interviews by trained clinicians
    - unobtrusive observations of nonverbal expressions
    - physiological assessments

    So, the short-hand answer is: Yes we can measure happiness. But the clearer better answer is we can indirectly measure this psychological construct of “happiness” which we must operationally define, and always must keep in mind that this is not a direct measure in the sense that other sciences might think of as “measurement.”

  87. sonicon 22 Apr 2014 at 3:56 pm

    The other John Mc-
    I’m assuming the same problems in measuring ‘well being’ as ‘happiness’- just so we can stay with the thread a bit.

    Here is the problem I’m having with this measure– if we are going to use it to make policy decisions, we still can’t tell if we are increasing or decreasing happiness.
    Example- we have a population of 20. We try policy ‘x’ and after a time we discover that policy ‘x’ has lead to 15 people being less happy and 5 people being more happy.
    Have we increased happiness or decreased it?
    It is possible the reduction in the 15 is really quite small whereas the increase for the five is quite large.
    But our measure doesn’t allow for quantity, so it can’t be used.

    Am I missing something?

  88. The Other John Mcon 23 Apr 2014 at 7:46 am

    Good questions and comments, sonic, thanks. Yes the concepts of “well-being”, “moral”, “ethical” etc. could all theoretically be measured (and suffer from same sorts of measurement problems) as happiness.

    To the question of quantity, while the units don’t usually have a real-world referent or interpretation, the raw numbers themselves can be used for statistical analysis. This allows us to see whether there are statistical differences between groups, or effects of treatments, or perhaps even study correlations and such.

    In your example, for one group with sample size of 20, we give manipulation X, and measure “well-being” before and after for each individual in the sample. We would probably want a control sample or two (one group of 20 who received a placebo manipulation, maybe another group who received a standard manipulation for this type of research for a good comparison).

    Does this help clarify?

  89. The Other John Mcon 23 Apr 2014 at 8:00 am

    Think of the ACT college test, this is psychometrics writ large. It is a measure of a psychological construct of “intelligence” and/or “scholastic aptitude” and/or “goodness in school” and it attempts to predict success in college.

    The measure assigns a numerical value to test performance from 1 to 36. These are basically unitless scores, and difficult to interpret as a real-world value. But we can speak meaningfully of median or even average scores of groups, we can measure its predictability in college, we can investigate experimental manipulations on scores to see whether it improves, how it changes over time, etc. etc.

  90. sonicon 23 Apr 2014 at 12:42 pm

    The Other John Mc-
    Thanks for the answers.
    Clearly the attempts to measure ‘happiness’ or ‘well being’ are not worthless.
    At this point I’m seeing my actual concerns have to do with accuracy and interpretation.

    If a government or leadership decides to increase happiness, then they would use the types of measures you have linked to and so forth and it seems to me that in some cases the results are going to be overwhelming and in those cases the leadership could justify action.

    I’m concerned about situations where the results are less than overwhelming.
    I’m concerned that people will look at the numbers as if they are accurate (science= physics) and forget that the measures being used are at best crude approximations for things we can’t quantify in reality.

    At this point it seems the measures you have discussed are not necessarily bad, but they aren’t ever going to be as accurate as a scale to measure weight- right?

    I guess my actual concern is that policy makers (and scientists) would forget the basic inaccuracies and treat some marginal result as if it were ‘true’.

    Perhaps this is an area where a skeptic could be useful.

    Am I off-the-wall again?

  91. The Other John Mcon 23 Apr 2014 at 1:09 pm

    No you are right on. I share your concern that these are easily misunderstood concepts, and the question of “What is a unit of ?” is a fair question with a complicated answer. I think this will just be the state of psychological science for the foreseeable future; we may never benefit from having the types of measurements the harder sciences possess.

    I also share your concern that if effect sizes of treatments are “at the margins” instead of slam-dunks, we should be extra-cautious about their interpretation and subsequent policy implementations. Completely agree.

  92. sonicon 23 Apr 2014 at 6:10 pm

    The Other John Mc-
    Here’s an odd thought-
    the measurements are as good as we realize their inaccuracies.

    But that’s always the case- no?

    Thanks for the explanation.

  93. Will Nitschkeon 24 Apr 2014 at 8:19 pm

    The world needs a ‘skeptical movement’ in the same sense people need holes in their heads. Rather than have intelligent individuals present reasoned arguments based on merit, you would inevitably end up with noisy majority voices in leadership positions arguing for every popular sciency fad and fashion as the One Truth. In fact, the exact opposite of the point and purpose of skepticism. Throw in lots of glib gibberish about ‘consensus’ for good measure and let a bunch of non experts pick which speculative research meshes with their prejudices, then demonize those who don’t feel politically correct. (Using of course, lots of name calling and juvenile psycho babble to bring home their point.)

    Actually, I think I just described… ;-)

  94. ccbowerson 24 Apr 2014 at 10:27 pm

    ‘Cynical contrarian who thinks he’s the only real skeptic’ says what?

    Oh, it’s not the productive nor reasoned argument he advocates for? Is he just looking for attention? Oh, OK. Not much has changed.

  95. grabulaon 24 Apr 2014 at 10:32 pm

    @Will N

    “The world needs a ‘skeptical movement’ that consist of intelligent individuals presenting reasoned arguments based on merit.”

    There. I fixed your post.

  96. BillyJoe7on 25 Apr 2014 at 5:37 am

    “The world needs a ‘skeptical movement’ in the same sense people need holes in their heads”

    People do need holes in their heads – for vision, hearing, and speech.
    Of course, there are certain individuals, who apparently do not have these useful holes and are, as a consequence, blind, deaf, and dumb.

  97. Bill Openthalton 25 Apr 2014 at 6:49 am

    BillyJoe7 –

    Hilarious!

    Does the fact you left said individual with nasal passages explain why he keeps smelling rats everywhere?

  98. The Other John Mcon 25 Apr 2014 at 9:22 am

    sonic: “Here’s an odd thought- the measurements are as good as we realize their inaccuracies. But that’s always the case- no?”

    Yes, and this is an important point even those in the harder sciences need to keep in mind, although the advice they are given is typically a little different:

    **Pay attention to the number of significant digits! Don’t report orders of magnitude accuracy in your measure that isn’t actually there, and be clear about where that limit is.**

    If only us poor suckers in the “softer” sciences had such measurement problems to deal with (too many digits behind the decimal point that we don’t know what to do with them all)! I am green with envy.

  99. sonicon 26 Apr 2014 at 12:43 pm

    The Other John Mc-
    No need to go all Rodney Dangerfield about it.
    “My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too.”

  100. The Other John Mcon 28 Apr 2014 at 10:45 am

    ha, no respect

  101. skepnosticon 07 May 2014 at 7:38 pm

    Being fairly green to the organised skepticism movement and living in Australia, I am only just catching up with what seems to be called “The Drama” in the skepticism movement (particularly in the US). Names like P.Z. Myers keep coming up in the discussion.

    From what I can tell, the issues and power struggles within the movement just betray the humanity and egos of those involved and the natural human desire for recognition and peer adulation, as well as the all-too-human tendency (even desire) to be led by strong, charismatic personalities. This is the same kind of personality cult seen in fundamentalist religions, reminding us all that humans are not naturally objective, hyper-rational nor free from emotionalism, and that we are (at a basic biological level) hierarchical pack animals.

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