Friday, September 20, 2013

Reading Sam Harris’s THE MORAL LANDSCAPE

In The Moral Landscape Sam Harris (a prominent proponent of the New Atheism movement) defends the claim that we can use science to determine what we should value. This is opposed to the more usual view that science deals with the realm of physical facts, that moral statements are not statements of physical fact, and so science can't have anything ultimately to say about moral values. Harris has a steep uphill battle to fight. As he himself documents, Harris's view runs counter to the intuitions of most scientists, not to mention philosophers and, well, just people in general. Many tend to think there are no moral truths—and so of course science can't discover them. Others (especially religious believers, but not only them) think that there are moral truths, but they are inaccessible to science, since science is only about physical facts and moral truths aren't physical facts. Despite this, Harris is going to argue that science can indeed tell us what the moral truths are. Concomitant to this is a claim that moral truths are physical facts—and he defends that claim as well. (I don't think he uses the phrase "moral truths are physical facts" but he does say they are facts about physical objects and their lawful relations. They are truths we can arrive at through purely naturalistic means.)

The book has stirred some controversy, but Harris seems unhappy with how that controversy is developing. He claims that his critics typically don't even understand what his claim is, much less offer effective criticisms of it. And so he has offered a challenge: $10,000 to whomever can write an essay successfully refuting his claim. Of course, he's the judge of that, so we'll see how far the challenge goes. But in addition to this prize, there is a $1000 prize going to whoever simply writes the best attempt to refute him, and that will be judged by third party who is actually a critic of Harris's position.. So there's a reason to write up a response after all!

I'm not committing to write such a response. After all, for all I know once I have read the book, I'll be convinced! However, the topic is intrinsically interesting, and his claim is very surprising, and is one I think would be awesome if true. (To be clear: I also think the negation of his claim is awesome if true. It's just an awesome topic, whatever the truth turns out to be.) So as I read through it, I'm going to record some of my off-the-cuff responses on this blog. And by the end of it, perhaps I'll have material for a response after all.

I have just finished the introduction, so now I'll say some things about it. First, several quotations that give a general overview of the argument he outlines in the Introduction:

"I will argue that questions about values… are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood…"

"…the argument I make in this book…rests on a very simple premise: human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it."

"…whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures—which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value—must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large…"

"…the concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists precise definition, and yet it is indispensable."

"It makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is 'good.' It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is 'good,' is whether it is conducive to, o robstructive of, some deeper form of well-being."

"…what values actually are [is] the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being, as well as that of other conscious minds."

"For my argument… to hold, I think one need only grant two points: (1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences relate, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world."

From all of the above, it is clear that his argument is going to stand or fall on his conception of "well-being." For if he promises to tell us that science can tell us what to value, and he also tells us (as he does above) that values are attitudes, choices and behaviors that potentially affect well-being, then it is natural to expect him to either argue that science can show us what well-being consists in, or to simply argue that, given a certain conception of well-being, science can tell us which values will achieve it.

The problem with the second option is that it doesn't appear to satisfy the promise of the book's subtitle or its main claims. If what science can do is tell us which values will achieve well-being, then we want to know, "okay, so what is well-being?" If science can't tell us that, then the promise that science can tell us what to value appears to be unfulfilled. Perhaps this is moving the goalposts, though. Maybe the idea was never supposed to be that science can tell us what well-being is, rather, just that science can tell us how to get there. This would be in tension with what Harris actually says, for example above where he says that well-being is the only thing we can reasonably value. If it is the only thing we can reasonably value, and if science is supposed to tell us what we should value, then it would seem to follow that science will show us that well-being is the only thing we can reasonably value.

So we come to the first option: that science can show us what well-being consists in.

Here we should be clear what "science" is, on Harris's account. He explains that he doesn't just mean mathematical modeling and the obtaining of experimental data. Rather, he says (this is from chapter one, so I'm looking ahead a bit…) that to think scientifically is to think in terms of "cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc…." If we take that characterization of science on board and read it into his use of the term in the introduction, then we understand the claim isn't that we must do mathematical models and obtain experimental data to discover what well-being consists in. Rather, the claim is that someone who "thinks like a scientist" (my words, meant as paraphrase to the previous quote) will understand what well-being consists in if he puts his mind to it.

This is not something Harris said, it's my extrapolation from his claims. But it fits well with what he does say about well-being, for example that it is like health, that there are certain scenarios no one seriously considers examples of well-being, that someone who considers it conducive to his well-being to kill and eat children after having sex with them is simply mistaken, and so on. He seems to be saying we don't need hardcore scientific apparatus to establish what well-being essentially is. Even if it is hard to define precisely (as he acknowledges) in stark cases it is easy to identify, and in harder cases careful thinking and measurement should in theory allow a determination. But does this run counter to the claim that science can determine our values? In other words, if what well-being is is so obvious you don't have to be a scientist to understand it, doesn't that mean something other than science determines our values—namely, something like "common sense"? I think Harris expects the reply to this to rely on an idea that that "common sensical" judgment about obvious cases of well-being is (or at least can be) a scientific judgment. He is not claiming, after all, that one must have a scientific sensibility to grasp some moral truths. Rather, he is saying a scientific sensibility is sufficient (not necessary) for grasping moral truths. A sensibility that thinks in terms of evidence and coherence is a scientific sensibility, and presumably, anyone who thinks like that will agree on very clear cases of well-being.

I think that's Harris's best possible reply (at least as far as the introduction goes) to the objection that he undermines his own claim by having the most fundamental value be determined by some kind of common sense rather than by science. His definition of science is supposed to include at least some aspects—the good ones—of that kind of "common-sense" judgment. But I'm not convinced by this reply. For I don't think it's clear that a concern for evidence and coherence and so on will lead someone to judge rightly about clear cases of well-being. To see why, think of it in reverse. Suppose someone judges wrongly about clear cases of well-being. Say he thinks well-being consists in having sex with children and then killing them. From this fact, can we conclude that the person doesn't have a scientific sensibility? I don't see why.

So as of the end of the introduction, Harris hasn't put my worry to rest—that his reliance on the idea of well-being means that ultimately he hasn't delivered on his promise. He's left the fundamental value (well-being) undetermined by science. But he does say he "will argue" that well-being is the only thing we can reasonably value. I believe he plans to do this in chapter one so I may have my worry allayed as soon as I've read that chapter.

He does also say at least something about this in the introduction. In one passage, for example, he analogizes well-being and health. Health (he doesn't say but I suppose) is what it means for a human body to flourish just as well-being is what it means for a conscious being to flourish. Just as there are facts about health (a healthy body has no open wounds, a healthy body does not eat poison, and so on) he says there are facts about well-being. And in both cases, though the goal concept (health or well-being) is hard to define and has widely different implications for different contexts, still the goal concept is objective and can be characterized in purely naturalistic terms. (We don't have to rely on supernatural concepts to define health, so why should we rely on them to define well-being? Both health and well-being are physical properties after all.)

This invites a question to my mind: Can someone coherently hold that a healthy body is a cancer-ridden body? Suppose we even have an entire community that understands health to consist in part of hosting cancer in the body, even cancer that will cause the body eventually to die? This seems completely opposed to health, of course. If a community held that it is part of what it means to be healthy, shouldn't we just say that they are wrong? This is certainly how Harris would reply. Just because someone thinks something is healthy, we all know this doesn't make it healthy. (And just because someone thinks something is conducive to well-being, this doesn't make it conducive to well-being.)

My wondering about a community of cancer-health people is analogous to someone proposing that there might be people, or even communities of people, who fundamentally disagree with most people about even very clear cases of well-being. For example, they may think that a life of torture and terror (see the "Bad Life" illustration in Harris's intro) is actually a case of well-being. Harris says people have proposed to him that someone might think this. (Though he's never met anyone who actually does think it). And his reply is to say that he "will argue that anyone who would seriously maintain [this]—or even that it might be the case—is either misusing words or not taking the time to consider the details." This argument comes in chapter one, I think, but continuing with the cancer-health analogy I think I can already offer a reply on his behalf.

Does the existence of an alternative conception of health show that it is illegitimate to base medical claims of fact on the concept of health? I don't think so. The cancer-health guys are just wrong--assuming the concept they're calling "health" is the same concept as mine. Well, it kind of depends on what delineates a concept of health. I think health is what is (roughly) what is conducive to long life. Apparently these other guys think health is what is conducive to the survival of cancerous growths. Either we're using the same concept when we say "health," or we're using two different concepts. If we are using the same concept when we say "health" then one of us is right and the other wrong—and so there remains room for an objective account of health (and so, analogously, an account like Harris's of well-being). Meanwhile, if we're actually talking about two different things and are merely (mistakenly) using the same word for these two different things, then we may not disagree, and so no point is made against Harris's view (since it has turned out those guys aren't even talking about health in the first place). So either way, Harris's kind of point survives.

But the question remains, how is it determined what health consists in? I'm right about one thing and the cancer-health guys are wrong about one thing, but more generally, how can we know overall just what health is? Can science determine this? Or is it simply "common sense" of some kind? Are we to conflate the two? I don't know yet. And the analogous questions remain for the concept of well-being. So I'll have to wait to say more once I've read a little further.

Let me know what you think.

No comments:

Post a Comment