Interesting to read that the idea that values reduce to facts, and that values are therefore amenable to scientific inquiry, was not first expounded by Harris, but by E.O. Wilson. Wilson wanted to privilege evolutionary biology as the field where such scientific value inquiry could be made, whereas Harris argues that morality has since “flown the perch built by evolution”. Now this is one of the few things about which I agree with Harris; I don’t think it follows, however, that we ought to elevate neuroscience as the critical medium through which we can do such research. I think he just wanted to excavate Wilson’s idea about value-fact reduction from the grave of sociobiology and replant it in a different framework where it was supposed to thrive. Strange how the few times Harris mentions Wilson, it’s to denigrate him or his apparent moral anti-realism, and never credits him with the initial idea at all.
Going over some of Kierkegaard’s journal entries from 1846, it’s astounding and even genuinely prophetic just how much foresight the man had regarding the relationship between science and ethics. Check out this tidbit:
In our time it is the natural sciences which are especially dangerous. Physiology will ultimately extend itself to include ethics. There are already sufficient clues of a new endeavor - to treat ethics as physics, whereby all ethics becomes illusory and ethics in the race is treated statistically by averages or is calculated as one calculates vibrations in laws of nature.
I believe Kierkegaard is talking about utilitarianism as the sufficient clues, and as one finds in The Moral Landscape, a sort of quasi-utilitarian consequentialism, quantifiable through neuroscience, is exactly what Harris has in mind.
Some of K’s off-the-cuff thoughts on the matter in his journals are simply wrong. He didn’t live to see just how much Darwinism would radically change mankind’s view of its relationship to the world, and some hypothetical scientific findings that he scoffed at have actually come to pass and be accepted as scientific orthodoxy. Nevertheless, his keen foresight and warnings are extremely valuable. I can’t help but imagine him riding on a horse through philosophy hallways across the world screaming “the natural sciences are coming!” The more research I do, the more the plot for this writing sample thickens.
onthought asked: If there is a scientist, or a philosopher, that claims science can inform judgements of right and wrong, then they bear a fundamental misunderstanding of science. It is precisely the avoidance of normative theory upon which the advocates of science have usually prided themselves. But of course, though I have not read them, I assume New Athiests believe their statements to be derived from positive science instead of normative theory.
So, I think science can do a lot to inform judgments of right and wrong. Discovering that there is more genetic variation within so-called racial groups than across them, for example, might help to undercut the main justifications for racism, etc. Whether it can make those judgments objectively is what I have a problem assenting to. I have a hard time believing that sola scientia we can come to definitive answers on ethical quandaries.
So far Sam Harris’s argument goes something like this:
- P: Values reduce to facts.
- P: Facts are amenable to scientific inquiry
- C: Values are amenable to scientific inquiry.
Sam Harris’s book is something like a call to arms, for scientists and science enthusiasts to drop the avoidance of normative in theory, else moral relativism and religious fundamentalism will overtake the entire ethical debate, which will have catastrophic consequences.
That’s about as charitable as I could put it.
This writing sample stuff is gnawing at my brain, and reading Sam Harris is, well, seriously diminishing my well-being. So I just decided to read up on scientism in general, which as far as my brain and well-being are concerned, was a big mistake. I accidentally stumbled upon the blog of one Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True (which is really a great book, by the way), where he talks about scientism. Now I haven’t read the foundational texts on the subject by Tom Sorell or Mikael Stenmark (yet), so my understanding of the controversy is bound to be rough - and probably even jagged - around the edges. In any case, Coyne entertains three ideas as to what exactly ‘scientism’ means. The first two are:
- The notion that atheists and scientists are cold, unfeeling rationalists that are blind to the beauty and wonder of the world.
- The notion that atheists and scientists employ science in every interaction they have with the world, including viewing art, being in love, etc.
While there might be a smidgen of truth in the second definition (evolutionary psychology/sociobiology, etc.) both of these look like really pale and scrawny definitions, if the concept of scientism is as problematic as people make it out to be, and Coyne rightly rejects them.
So what definition does Coyne have in mind? He has, in my opinion, an even paler and scrawnier definition:
“The practice of applying rationality and standards of evidence to faith.”
One needs only read a few lines further to see that, instead of carefully analyzing the concept of scientism, Coyne is setting up a strawman against which to direct his anti-religious polemic:
“For religious people and accomodationists, that practice is a no-no. That’s why the adjective is pejorative.
‘Scientism’, then, is a religious codeword… Perhaps I’m belaboring the obvious.”
Perhaps I’m just not applying rationality to the matter at hand, but it doesn’t seem to me that Coyne’s definitions are obvious at all. Nor are they rigorously argued for.
So what might be a more fleshed out definition? Perhaps a stronger claim, like the idea that the scientific method and empirical enquiry are the chief, or even only, reliable and valuable vehicles for knowledge of any kind, ethical and existential knowledge included. Implicit in this claim is that science, the natural sciences specifically, is the chief, or even only, reliable and valuable methodology through which to find answers to what we ought (and ought not) to do, what the meaning life is, and what our place in the universe is.
Most importantly, one need not be religious to find a problem with this idea of scientism. As far as I know, “Scientism” is not a religious codeword for Tom Sorell, who protests the encroachment of the natural sciences on the social sciences. That many moral philosophers accuse folks like E.O. Wilson or Sam Harris of scientism is not because they’re ‘butthurt theists’. Coyne never stops to critically analyze this stronger claim; instead, it actually seems to be like an epistemological starting point for his worldview.
All in all, it’s just the same annoying rhetoric from the rest of the so-called New Atheists and their circle of friends, and I shouldn’t have expected anything else. But I was at least hoping that maybe I’d find a fruitful discussion, or even a sound rebuttal, of scientism. Instead I got the same, boring anti-religious vitriol I could have found had I searched for ‘atheism’ on youtube.
Of course, it was probably too much to expect anything like that. It is just, after all, a blog post - a sort of public diary that can be broadcast on the web; and honestly, who applies rationality or standards of evidence in diaries? I certainly don’t, in diaries nor on blog posts.
I think everyone should take the time to watch this panel discussion, and especially check out the individual presentations delivered by each of the panelists. My favorite parts are when Blackburn quips about global warming, and how Pinker explains the similarity between fiction and philosophy. My least favorite: surprisingly not Sam Harris, but pretty much everything that Lawrence Krauss has to say.
Does anyone else know of an author who argues that science can not only inform our decisions of right and wrong, but can clearly answer such questions? Does anyone else make Harris’s claim, or at least one that’s very similar, and apply some philosophical sophistication to it?
To me there is something repulsive when a natural scientist, after having pointed to some ingenious design in nature, sententiously declares that this reminds us of the verse that God has counted every hair on our heads. O, the fool and his science, he has never known what faith is! Faith believes it without all his science, and it would only become disgusted with itself in reading all his volumes if these, please note, were supposed to lead to faith, strengthen faith, etc.
Kierkegaard, journals 3:2810
Basically that creationism and intelligent design are shams.
There is a possible world in which I am good at math.
Here’s a quick abstract:
In this essay I will examine the sport of football as a case study for Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of “language-games” as expounded in Philosophical Investigations. I will then go on to critically evaluate the extent to which some fairly common movements in football, such as head-fakes, might count as linguistic practice or gesture, and whether they might be better understood as non-lingustic indicators of action. I will argue that such movements are best understood as “instruments” or “elements” of language, but that the context in which they are performed is based on non-linguistic indication or inference.