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Christianity &Islam &Judaism Thomas on 12 Oct 2010 01:43 am

Can science decide morals?

John Horgan’s Cross-Check in SciAm questions Sam Harris’ new book:

Be wary of the righteous rationalist: We should reject Sam Harris’s claim that science can be a moral guidepost

I part company with him when he argues in his new book The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2010)—which comes fortified with blurbs from Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and other antireligious scientific luminaries—that science can take religion’s place as the supreme arbiter of moral “truth”. “There are right and wrong answers to moral questions,” Harris asserts, “just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics.” Questions about morality, he explains, are really questions about human happiness or “well-being,” and these questions can be empirically resolved, just as questions about diet and disease can be.

26 Responses to “Can science decide morals?”

  1. on 12 Oct 2010 at 2:15 am 1.Ben said …

    Wow, read the article! Hogan blasts Harris and puts the arrogant little bigot in his place with undeniable facts. Most notably, the evil inflicted on the public by the so-called scientist looking out for the public good.

  2. on 12 Oct 2010 at 10:50 am 2.Luis J. Villanueva said …

    Horgan’s article lacks any convincing arguments against Harris thesis. It uses cases of unethical medicine to “demonstrate” that science can be immoral. To pretend that the use of science will be perfect is idiotic, one of the main pillars of science is that all conclusions are tentative. We learned that this is the best way to go since humans are biased, make mistakes and allow themselves to be influenced by bigotry, external agendas, and other factors.

  3. on 12 Oct 2010 at 3:05 pm 3.Conrad said …

    Hogan says that some scientific experiments have been evil, and demonstrates this point clearly.

    But he claims that this somehow shows that science cannot be used to answer moral questions but he does not explain why he thinks this follows.

  4. on 12 Oct 2010 at 5:37 pm 4.Grimalkin said …

    I’m just over halfway through Sam Harris’s book and I have to say that I’m agreeing with him so far (granted, I’m in the reading stage and not in the “mulling it over afterwards” stage yet). It’s a huge improvement from the New Age-y dualism he presented in End of Faith!

    One thing I’m finding is that almost all the objections that are being brought up have the tone of hysterics, or at the very least seem to make no effort to actually understand what Harris is saying. The article you link to with its “science can’t answer moral questions because scientific advancements have been used to perform immoral things” proposition is a perfect example. Nevermind that religious theology has been used to immoral ends – that doesn’t count.

    Then we get people like this one: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/secondhandsmoke/2010/10/03/science-cannot-teach-us-right-from-wrong-and-distinguish-good-from-bad/ This article goes on and on about how science can’t answer questions of morality because you have to first use an assumption (that the morally good is that which contributes to well-being), which is “unscientific.” All right, it’s a silly objection, but it’s common enough that we can allow it. When I informed the author that Harris spends at least half his book addressing this very question, the author simply screeches that he’s not interested in responding to Harris, or even knowing what Harris has to say, because he’s only responding to the Harris-construction presented in a review he read. Nevermind that the ideas he’s challenging are Harris’s ideas, and that his objections are objections of what Harris is saying.

    Honestly, the more I see how feeble and hysterical the arguments against Harris’s position are, the more I am willing to accept that Harris may well be correct. Certainly, his principle – that if we settle on a grand definition of morality, we can then proceed to use science to answer moral questions because we will be talking about “is/is not” – is correct. Whether the methods he describes are the ones we will eventually use, or whether the assumptions he makes regarding what the findings will be are correct, is open for debate. But I think that the idea that a concrete definition of morality moves the question into the realm of science, and that “well-being” is probably as good a definition as we are likely to reach, is absolutely correct.

  5. on 12 Oct 2010 at 9:22 pm 5.Horatio said …

    Harris isn’t worth responding to, much like atheist believe preachers are not worth responding to. He is an ideologue and ideologues cannot overcome their own biases. He starts with a conclusion then attempts to build his case from that end. It is psuedo-science at best. Harris will need to overcome his irrational fears of theists before he can be taken seriously.

  6. on 13 Oct 2010 at 6:56 am 6.Severin said …

    5 Horatio
    “He is an ideologue…”
    “It is psuedo-science at best.”
    “Harris will need to overcome his irrational fears of theists before he can be taken seriously.”

    If someone wrote it for you, you would ask for some arguments.
    Now you gave me freedom to say:
    Horatio is a religious ideologue. Moreover, he is a narroow-minded, stubborn fanatic.
    He comments without arguments and make statements without evidences and logic.

    He will need to overcome his fanatism to be taken seriously.

    How does it sound?
    Familiar?

  7. on 13 Oct 2010 at 7:06 am 7.Severin said …

    Horatio believes:
    - Earth is 6000 years old
    -God made “universe” (what? “earth”, “water”, “darkness”, “light”, “heaven”, “plants”, “animals”, man from mud, woman from his rib…no galaxies mentioned!)
    - Jesus died then got alive again
    - Big flood (which covered all mountain peaks, including, obviously, Mount Everest) really occurred
    - Noah put kangaroos and armadillos on his arc
    - Etc

    Is this “pseudo-science”?
    Not even at best!

    It is a big NOTHING.

  8. on 13 Oct 2010 at 11:59 am 8.Lou said …

    Guys like Harris are dangerous men. He has made the claim that some ideas are worth killing other people over. Great start to his moral code. Science is a tool not God. It is a known fact that science is skewed by money, opinion and guesses. Global warming is one great example. The attacks on Francis Collins by men like Richard Dawkins prove opinion is also a huge player. Horgan is absolutely correct.

  9. on 13 Oct 2010 at 3:01 pm 9.Severin said …

    8 Lou
    “Guys like Harris are dangerous men. He has made the claim that some ideas are worth killing other people over.”

    He probably got such ideas from the Bible when he was a child.
    When you get them as a child, it is very difficult to dig them deep enough.

    Didn’t you ask once why was killing of babies immoral?
    If it was you, you are potentially much more dangerous than Harris.

  10. on 13 Oct 2010 at 3:16 pm 10.Severin said …

    8 Lou
    “It is a known fact that science is skewed by money, opinion and guesses.”

    Some statement from someone believing in resurrection, big flod, making man from mud, talking snakes, 6,000 years old earth…

    How would you live today without science?
    How would we all?

  11. on 13 Oct 2010 at 6:59 pm 11.Moss said …

    The New Atheists such as Sam Harris embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists.

    They propose a route to collective salvation and the moral advancement of the human species through science and reason. The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving towards collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment.

    Those who believe in the possibility of this perfection often call for the eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress. They turn their particular good into a universal good. They are blind to their own corruption and capacity for evil. They soon commit evil, not for evil’s sake but to make a better world.

  12. on 14 Oct 2010 at 4:42 pm 12.Tom said …

    Atheism is not a belief system. In most aspects atheists have the same beliefs about all religions as do Christians towards the many alternative religeous beleifs except their own. Being an atheist does not make one a good or bad person. It is simply a lack of a belief in a deity. Sam Harris does not claim to have any route to collective salvation. The idea that Atheists are dreaming of a perfect society or a perfect human being is simply a figment of your imagination.

  13. on 14 Oct 2010 at 6:12 pm 13.A Romatic said …

    Tom,

    Atheist have no beliefs? Then how could they use science to develop morality?

    You need to listen to Sam a little or you are just in a state of denial. He believes he knows what is best for everyone.

  14. on 14 Oct 2010 at 9:46 pm 14.MrQ said …

    Aromatic (#13) gets:

    Atheist have no beliefs? Then how could they use science to develop morality?

    from Tom’s (#12):

    Atheism is not a belief system.

    No wonder logic and the extended family (Aromatic, Cur, gas bag, Horus, etc) are like water and oil.

    It’s not like that crew needs to think, though. They just gotta believe.

  15. on 16 Oct 2010 at 4:07 pm 15.Severin said …

    13 A Romantic
    “Atheist have no beliefs?”
    You confuse beliefs with trust.

    Making choices among many different religions, each of them offering only fairy tales without any logic or any support in science, in personal experiances, or in common sense, and none of which offers any arguments or evidence for their claims, is called believing.
    It is uncritical, blind faith: you just follow and believe, without questioning and without any criticism, everything your church tells you. Another one follows what his church tells him, which might be, and usually are, very different things.
    Tell me, for example, why is christianity right and islam is not right, or v.v.!?
    What arguments can anyone offer to prove one religion better tan another one?
    Atheists follow another logic: if someone develops a theory which clearly explains some natural processes AND such a theory proves itself in practice (for example atom energy, GPS…vaccines…), and if then the same or similar people develop other theories which explain other natural processes, WHY would I not trust them?
    They already proved themselves right!
    In most cases they proved themselves right oposing typical retrograde “teachings” of churches!

    Being typically better educated than believers, atheist have their own knowledge, open mind, common sense, and are able to recognize what could and what could not have sense.
    We just don’t take anything for granted!

  16. on 16 Oct 2010 at 4:14 pm 16.Severin said …

    13 A Romantic
    “Then how could they use science to develop morality?”

    No one uses science to DEVELOP morality, but to explain it.

    Morality is the matter of evolution. It clearly evolved with development of species.
    Some primitive species, for example, eat their own youngs, other do not.

    Morality developed, in case of human race, even independently of development of human body.

    Just compare human laws 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago and todays laws of modern societies.
    Isn’t it evolution?

  17. on 16 Oct 2010 at 5:02 pm 17.A said …

    “Just compare human laws 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago and todays laws of modern societies.
    Isn’t it evolution?”

    computing…computing….computing……

    No. If anything we have devolved.

  18. on 16 Oct 2010 at 10:32 pm 18.3D said …

    17.A said …

    “Just compare human laws 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago and todays laws of modern societies.
    Isn’t it evolution?”

    computing…computing….computing……
    No. If anything we have devolved.

    So there’s one religious person’s vote in favor of owning slaves and subjugation of women. Anyone else wanna jump on that bandwagon?

  19. on 17 Oct 2010 at 2:36 am 19.Boz said …

    “So there’s one religious person’s vote in favor of owning slaves and subjugation of women.”

    Where are they!! Where’d they go???

    Slaves are all over the world dingy. Woman are treated like crap all over the world especially atheist China where females are murdered as babies. I do hope atheist will evolves past the horror. Please! Jump off the bandwagon!!!!!

  20. on 17 Oct 2010 at 2:21 pm 20.Hell Yeah said …

    Boz,
    You are correct when you say there are slaves all over the world. They are called followers of religion. You are a slave to something that doesn’t exist. How do you like that?

    And Boz, you are murdering future babies every time you jack off.

    How about those Christians that when they have a sick child that instead of treating that child with medicine they try to pray in hopes the sickness will go away? I know of one story that I heard recently where a young girl died of diabetes because the only thing the parents did was pray. You religous people think that praying helps, well, guess what, you are a slave to that and it doesn’t work. So anything you pray for instead of taking the correct action, you are murdering that action.

  21. on 17 Oct 2010 at 5:07 pm 21.Anti-Theist said …

    People are not made slaves nor are babies killed in the name of Atheism. I don’t know of the before items happening today in the name of christianity either but I don’t understand how one can sympathize with a book that promotes them.

  22. on 17 Oct 2010 at 7:19 pm 22.Boz said …

    HY,

    Yes there are religious folks who withhold medical treatment. Yes they are crazy folks. And?

    You so silly. What are you like 15? Come back when you have grown up.

    (sigh)

  23. on 18 Oct 2010 at 1:26 pm 23.Observer said …

    Yet another chance for the willingly ignorant ( especially you Boz ) to learn something about science and morality from a legitimate source…

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/morals-without-god/?hp

    Of course, the piss-your-pants-speaking-in-tongues-Jeehayzuss crowd typically discounts totally what is said by people with academic achievement far beyond their capabilities, so this will likely fall of deaf ears as well.

  24. on 18 Oct 2010 at 4:09 pm 24.Severin said …

    22 Boz
    “Yes there are religious folks who withhold medical treatment. Yes they are crazy folks. And?”

    And – they are crazy folks!
    Thank you for saying it!

  25. on 31 Oct 2010 at 3:44 pm 25.atv mud tires said …

    It’s time to bring these babies back from obscurity!

  26. on 31 Oct 2010 at 7:45 pm 26.Rostam said …

    “Yet another chance for the willingly ignorant ( especially you Boz ) to learn something about science and morality from a legitimate source…’

    Would that be the RIGHT degree from the RIGHT school or what YOU have decided is legitimate.

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