Can science answer moral questions? cont’d

Sam Harris, speaking in Berkeley last November, continues to make the case:

The full program here.

As always, I think his critique of religion is sound, but it’s his explicit linking of moral principles to scientific objectivity that continues to fascinate me. I’ve objected to the notion that science and faith necessarily occupy separate spheres, and argued that religion makes claims about reality and gets it wrong. The flip side of that, of course, is the question of whether science can make claims about morality and get it right.

So I find it very interesting to see Harris persuasively attack Hume’s “is/ought” distinction and explain how science is inextricably bound up in values at its very core (Chapter 7 in the full program):

Even the most basic scientific statements… are anchored to values at every point. This covers Hume’s famous notion of “you can’t get an ought from an is,” you can’t get a statement of how we should behave or how the world should be, based on a description of the way it is. You can’t get an is without an ought. You can’t make the most basic scientific statement without conforming to the norms of scientific rationality. So science is very much in the values business. It is a myth that there’s this division between facts and values in science.

I realize as well that my own slowness to entertain the notion that science has a bearing on morality is based on my unconscious assumption of an overly narrow definition of science: perhaps an image of physicists reporting on their experimental results at press conferences. Harris, of course, is talking about a much broader vision of science, encompassing “genetics, neurobiology, psychology, sociology, economics” — a whole slew of enterprises that rely on scientific thinking and open, rational discussion, and which can have things to say about better and worse ways to organize human society (Chapter 9 in the full program):

When I talk about science giving us an understanding of human values, I’m not narrowly talking about white lab coated experimentalists scanning brains. I’m talking about any area of human life where we make truth claims honestly based on honest observation and clear reasoning about the nature of reality. There are clearly right and wrong ways for human beings to seek to thrive.

And, addressing fears that science might “get it wrong” (Chapter 24 in the full program):

Science is our truly open conversation in which we are most constrained by honest observation and clear reasoning. It’s when we make our best effort to get our biases out of the way and our wishful thinking out of the way, and just talk honestly about what we know and what we don’t know… It’s a very strange intuition that the most important questions in human life must fall outside of science. Because what we’re saying is that when you become most intellectually honest, when you get your wishful thinking out of the way, when you get your biases out of the way, when you rely upon clear reasoning and honest observation, that’s precisely the mood you can’t be in to address the most important questions in human life. That’s weird, and we should point that out. There is no other mood to be in to ask the most important questions… Again, I don’t define science narrowly… It’s evidence-based, rational discussion, where people’s convictions are going to scale with the quality of the arguments and the quality of the evidence. And that is really the antithesis of what happens in religion. […]

The fear you’re expressing could be applied to medicine. We’re all afraid that science is going to get human health wrong and disease wrong and cancer wrong… It’s possible to get these things wrong, but the remedy for getting them wrong is always just better science… It’s understanding the facts more clearly. The antidote is never some other process of irrational faith-based claims about the nature of reality.

A powerful response, I think, to Stephen Jay Gould’s argument about non-overlapping magisteria.

I’d be interested to see other arguments on this issue, for or against. Harris is quite convincing, but I’d love to see him sit down with, say, Michael Sandel (who would disagree, I think, with his premise) to hash out the trolley problem and tease out the implications and complications of the notion of “maximizing” human happiness.

My previous thoughts on this topic here and here.


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