The Last Dogma Picture Show

Russell Blackford

Andrew Sullivan:

Sam Harris sees science as a way to determine what is right and wrong. He is basically attacking the post-Nietzsche fact-value distinction

Freddie at L’Hote:

I made a joke the other day that I wanted to go to a TED conference and read aloud from Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,” and then Andrew Sullivan comes along and drops this on me. It fits what I was thinking exactly. I wonder, often, if there has been a period of greater intellectual arrogance than the one I live in. Of course there has been; there was a time before the modern critique, and, you know, Aristotle had already figured it all out. But it’s hard to keep that perspective in our current time. I have watched, with half-horror and half-bemusement, the rise of what I call we might call human achievement yuppies. They are all over: the techno-utopians, the market fetishists, the hipster teleologists, the neo-Aristotelians, “the Secret” devotees and similar cultists, the prosperity gospel evangelists, the proponents of various self-help books, the lifehackers, the starry-eyed socialists, the evolutionary optimists, the scientism proselytizers, the policy wonks, the personal virtue republicans…. Incidentally, were I in charge, I would hold the TED conferences or similar in a Brazilian favela, or village in Haiti or Somalia. I don’t think you can meaningfully come to understand human progress without understanding the depths of human misery; a consideration of the human endeavor that weighs only the progress and none of those who have been progressed upon is a work of fantasy.

This is all one of the reasons, among many, that I find the constant invective against the postmodern turn in the academy so strange. Postmodernism is not and has never been a powerful force in the world; for how could it stand against the dueling certainties and totalizing ideologies that we have never fallen out of love with? For my part, personally, I distrust those that think of practicality as a cardinal virtue, who believe our experience represents finally a series of problems to be solved, who think that efficiency is to be pursued in all elements of human achievement, who think that living is something that can be done better or worse. I’ll favor those who take as their goals to be beautiful, to be moral, and to be happy. There is no greater insult in this than the expression of personal preference. Such things are personal, and if you’ll forgive me, unspeakable.

There are many things that I call myself. The one that I think is the most accurate and the most important has always been “skeptic,” but I’ve rarely used it. I rarely use it because of what most other self-identified skeptics have made of it: when most people here of skeptics, they think of people who are deeply dismissive of the existence of Bigfoot (and isn’t that a courageous stance), but who are entirely credulous towards the power of human cognition. You might think of Penn Jillette, the living smirk, who has a massive and showy disdain for people who believe anything that fails to meet his evaluative criteria, and yet seems to apply his own ability to accurately understand the universe around him to no such scrutiny. This is the kind of skeptic that Sam Harris is: he is skeptical of competing claims of truth and accuracy, but not of his own capacity to judge, nor of the human capacity to create intellectual structures that make that judging correct. Certainly, this is what the edifice of modern skepticism represents: a skepticism that first flatters the intellect of the skeptic in question, and the human mind in general.

I’ve always felt that the kind of skepticism that is most valuable, that is to our pragmatic benefit, is the skepticism that begins the skeptical enterprise at the human mind, the classical Greek skepticism that regarded any real certainty as dogmatism. Not because it is true, or even because it is superior, but because epistemological modesty seems to me to be an entirely under appreciated tool for the practical prosecution of our lives and our arguments. You can of course read a vast array of literature making this same point, from people far smarter and better argued than I am. You can read people like Sextus Empiricus, the Buddha, David Hume, George Berkeley, Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty…. Not because they are gurus who will point you towards truth, but because what they have to say may help you along your way.

For me, I would merely put it this way: that we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs that seem to be the products of  evolution. And the belief (however you want to define a belief) in evolution makes the idea of those consciousness and sensory mechanism being capable, no matter how long the time scale, of perfectly or non-contingently ordering the universe around us seem quite low. Evolution does not produce perfectly fit systems, it only eliminates those systems so unfit that they prevent survival and the propagation of genetic material. A chimpanzee’s intellect is a near-miracle, capable of incredible things, but it will never understand calculus. I could never and would never say this with deductive certainty, but it seems likely to me that our consciousness has similar limitations.

They tell me that the Copernican revolution and the rise of evolution have permanently altered the place of humanity in the human mind. They say that the collapse of the Ptolemaic worldview towards a vision of our planet and our sun as existing amidst a sea of stars of incomprehensible vastness has destroyed our arrogant notion that our planet is special. They tell me that evolution has destroyed any belief in divine creation and with it the notion that humanity is anything other than an animal species. And they say all of this from the position of didacticism and superiority, weaving it into a self-aggrandizing narrative about how these skeptics are the ones who are capable of looking at the uncomfortable truths of the world and not flinching.

Will Wilson at Postmodern Conservative:

Now, far be it from me to to diss Nietzschean perspectivism (I am, after all, on record as being an intractable opponent of the Invisible Eye), but I think Freddie overplays his hand here. Contingent minds merely undermine the necessity of our being able to comprehend the world (a necessity that the faithful take quite seriously, as an old Dominican friar once explained to me), they leave open, however, the possibility of contingent minds that “just happen” to be of the sort that can make sense of the universe in which they happen to be located. Nevertheless, Freddie is right about one thing: once we eliminate necessity, we need reasons to think that our minds are of the right sort; after all, the humble Giraffe is well adapted to its environment, but will never come to understand particle physics or the workings of its own neurophysiology. How are we to know that we are not like Giraffes, only with considerably wider possible-knowledge horizons?

A simple response is that we haven’t failed yet. The theories we build in order to explain the universe around us are remarkably, even distressingly successful. Even stranger than their success is the methodology with which we go about building them. As Christopher Norris has beautifully documented, the positivist fairy-tale of open-minded scientists accumulating measurable evidence, making conjectures based on that evidence, and then seeking to refute those conjectures does not well describe the actual way that scientists operate. In fact, the process is a good deal more deductive — the vast majority of working scientists begin by assuming scientific realism, then asking what underlying, noumenal features of the world might lead to the kind of evidence that we observe, then building a theory concerning what other kinds of evidence these noumena might produce, then seeking confirmatory and disconfirmatory evidence.

If the world were actually non-objective, or even objectively real but of a kind that was inaccessible to our contingent reason, what would be the odds of this extraordinarily arrogant and presumptive process working — not just once, but over and over again, throughout human history? If mathematics were formalist or something akin to a logical game, then why would it be the case that sets of “toy” axioms rapidly turn out to be trivial or contradictory; while the axioms that seem to best model the world churn out theory after theory of incredible richness, whilst just barely shying away from having sufficient power to prove their own consistency, thereby rendering themselves inconsistent? Finally, why on earth do our mathematical theories and our scientific theories work so eerily well together? Why does Wigner’s “unreasonable effectiveness” exist?

Let us return to the giraffes! There is no evolutionary pressure to having minds that can figure out U(1) x SU(2) x SU(3) symmetry, or why it is that the spin of an electron has to be what it is (also due to symmetry constraints). Freddie might reply that the ability to perform the kind of abstraction and symbolic thinking that is useful when figuring out how to hunt or how migration patterns work leads very naturally to the kind of abstraction required to figure out particle physics, but I think this is missing the point. The question is why fundamental physics is amenable to this kind of abstraction. Why minds of our kind happen to be in a universe of this kind. The alternative is not necessarily chaos.

I’ve occasionally been fond of saying that physics might be hopeless. Recall that a giraffe is well adapted to its environment, but will never figure out the fundamental properties of the universe. Similarly, physics could be trivial — it would be if we were supermen with superbrains.

Will Wilkinson:

If I understand him, Freddie’s central claim is something like this:

Freddie’s anti-dogma: If geocentrism and/or creationism are false, then there is no objective knowing.

This puzzling proposition implies that if anything is objectively known, geocentrism or creationism (or something like that) must be true! Quite the package deal. But why think theories about the location of Earth relative to other celestial bodies, or about the origins of plants and animals imply anything at all about the possibility of objective knowledge?

To imagine that the possibility of objectivity must have something to do with the cosmic centrality or special creation of humanity is simply to accept the upshot of theologies Freddie claims skeptically to reject.  He appears to believe that to hold educated opinions about astronomy and biology while refusing to accept the theologian’s conditional proposition that if we aren’t special, then we don’t know, amounts to some kind of failure of epistemic consistency. But, really, Freddie’s own skepticism seems never to have taken flight. He thinks the theologians are right about what good astronomy and biology imply. But why?

All Freddie’s alleged “last dogma” amounts to is acceptance of the mundane fact that the ability of human beings to form justified true beliefs about the external world has nothing much to do with discarded theories about our location in outer space and the origins of species.

It is true that this planet revolves around a star at the edge of the Milky Way. It is true that we humans are descended from apes. And it is true that we know all that, and a whole lot more.

Julian Sanchez:

A minor kvetch: Normally it’s creationists, not people who understand evolutionary theory well, that one finds using phrases like “the directionless and random process of evolution,” but I’ll assume he means something like “unguided and underdetermined.” My bigger problem is that I don’t think Freddie’s picture fully appreciates how incoherent and useless the idea of a transcendent objectivity really is. The implicit account here seems to be that, after all, we might hope we had these divine immaterial minds capable of directly apprehending truth, and then we might have a firm foundation for objective knowledge, but alas we’re stuck with these electrified meatsacks whose chief virtue was to make our grandparents relatively good at staying fed and shagging.

The thing it, this turns out to make no difference at all for the underlying epistemic problem. God or whatever other transcendent sources of certainty we might posit just serve as baffles to conceal the ineradicable circularity that’s going to sit at the bottom of any system of knowledge. You’re always ultimately going to have a process of belief formation whose reliability can only be vouchsafed in terms of the internal criteria of that very process. Calling it a divinely endowed rational faculty rather than an adaptive complex of truth-tracking modules doesn’t actually change the structure of it any.

If your background assumption or expectation is that certain and objective knowledge requires some kind of transcendent anchor, then it might look like a view where our rational faculties are naturalized cuts the tether and leaves our epistemology  unmoored. This may seem like a big problem—just as someone who believes our lives  are meaningful in virtue of Earth’s position at the center of the universe might think Copernicus is a big problem. But if you have a view that recognizes that the transcendent anchor wouldn’t actually do you any good, or make any epistemic difference, even if it were available, then you’re in a different boat. You’re not falling short of “objectivity” or “certainty,” because these terms have no coherent meaning except within the frame of reference provided by the brains and deductive practices we’re stuck with. If you wound the idea of transcendent objective knowing, you conclude that all we’ve got is our plural subjectivities. But if you kill it and really burn the corpse, you realize that picture of “objective knowledge”  is a meaningless phantom. (Like the proverbial amplifier that goes to 11: It seems like something extra, but all you’ve done is relabeled the peak volume.)  In that case, we’re still eligible for “objective knowledge” in the only sense in which the phrase was ever intelligible—which is a coherentist sense.

If this seems a little abstract, consider specifically the argument that “we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs.” This sounds like a limitation—like there’s an ideally clear picture of how things are, and all we’ve got is this filtered version.  Except, what could it possibly mean to “encounter the physical universe unmediated”? Nothing. Well, maybe a brain hitting a rock—but if by “encounter” we mean “form representations of and beliefs about,” that has to be “mediated” in the minimum sense that some process or other correlates mind states and world states somehow. But if there really is no timeless frame of reference, then the only sense in which it’s at all coherent to talk about knowledge and certainty is internal to an epistemic system. There is nothing transcendent to lose—all we could ever have meant by “truth” or “knowledge” all along, if we were succeeding at meaning anything, was the domesticated local version. Just click your heels—you had the power to go home all along.

Freddie responds to his comment section:

The collective reading comprehension of the Internet is as sharp as ever, and so I am writing a reply to some of my tired and predictable critics in the comments of my recent post on skepticism.

The most repeated and yet least defensible claim is the hoary old argument towards self-refutation. This trope is evergreen, it appears. Many commenters are taking the tack, “you are saying with certainty that you can’t have certainty!” or “you are saying without doubt that we must always have doubt!” or some such. I really have a hard time knowing how to address this failure of reading comprehension: I defy anyone, really, to find a single statement in that post that is expressed in a way that declares itself certain, lacking doubt, atemporal, non-contingent or objective. Take your time; I’ll wait. I don’t think you’re going to find anything. I am quite disciplined on this subject; I’ve done this dance before. To the point of distraction, I point out the contingent and subjective nature of my own claims, but I have to, because even having done so, you get this same old insistence that I am being certain about uncertainty. I’m not. Please, if it really is unclear from all of the verbiage that I expended on this issue: there is no position or idea that I expressed within that post that I intended as objective, certain, indubitable, atemporal, or non-contingent.

That I was so careful on that score, but that people still launched into the boring old self-refutation gambit again– and it is boring; despite the fact that so many commenters insist on thinking that they have cracked some kind of code, it is literally ancient, Plato having made a version of it– I think that reveals a tendency I see more and more on the Internet: there is a large crowd of readers and commenters who read entirely through a kind of reverse shorthand, where they take any post that vaguely resembles a post they’ve read somewhere else, and respond to it as though it were that earlier post. So John Q. Commenter says, “Aha! I remember someone once say, ‘I am certain there is no such thing as certainty,’ and boy didn’t I give it to that guy in the comments! To the Batmobile!” Well, I’m sorry folks, but you’ve got to work a little harder than that. Saying over and over that I was expressing certainty doesn’t change the fact that I intended no such thing.


To those who say that I am not disagreeing with Harris, I’m a bit confused: here I am, disagreeing with him. Harris claims that, despite uncertainty and a multiplicity of moral actions, we can make objectively moral or immoral actions or statements. I don’t believe in transcendent morality of any kind. Morality, to my lights, is best thought of as an agreement between people, which is therefore never certain, timeless, or transcendent. I think it is to our practical benefit to act as though there is no moral value that transcends limited human agreement. Which means, yes, I am incapable of saying that the Taliban is objectively or certainly of inferior moral value to the Dalai Llama. And if you’d like to haul out the high school debating team tactic, no, I can’t say that Hitler, the Holocaust or Nazism are permanently, objectively and non-contingently evil in some transcendent way.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t consider them evil, or that I can’t fight them, or that my feelings towards Nazism and the obligation to fight it are any less passionate or committed. Not at all. It merely means that I find the genesis of that opposition and that passion to be within the subjective framework of my own life. This is part of the problem again: people insist that saying, for example, that scientific truth is socially constructed represents some great insult to science, but it only would be if you maintain belief in a transcendent truth that socially constructed truth can be compared to. I don’t. From my perspective, use visions of truth are actually more respectful of science, because science is fantastically useful.

Will Wilson at PomoCon, responding to Freddie:

Freddie’s and Led’s challenge still warrants investigation, however, and today is a particularly fruitful day on which to consider it. Today is Great and Holy Saturday, when our thoughts are drawn to the small band of disciples who along with Mary gathered outside the tomb of Christ, waiting and hoping for the resurrection of the Lord, their presence motivated by nothing more than a promise. What Freddie and Led have nicely pointed out is that mathematics and science are based on a similar kind of promise.

I recall another Saturday, several years ago, when I was in college and trying to decide whether to take the plunge and become a math major. Late that night, I ran into an inebriated grad student who, as it happens, was writing his dissertation on non-foundational set theory. The two of us chatted, and I explained my dilemma. His first question was blunt, in the manner of mathematicians: “Are you smart enough?”

“I think so,” I replied, “it seems like most of the hopefuls get weeded out by the first class that requires them to do abstract proofs, and I have no trouble with that, so I should be fine, right?”

He smiled drunkenly and shook his head. ”No, proving things is the easy part.”

He was right of course, the difficulty of proof pales in comparison to the difficulty of stating what you wish to prove. Mathematicians since well before Hardy have been publishing paeans to proof as a creative and intuitive process, but trying to determine which questions are mathematically interesting is a far more daring act.  The aesthetic and analytic faculties must operate in full concert, fueled by the belief that what seems like it should be true actually is true… and provable.

Mathematicians have struggled with these doubts ever since Gödel showed that all that is true is not provable and, more importantly, since Matiyesevich and Chaitin showed that many interesting true statements are unprovable, rather than just Gödel’s artificial corner-cases. Setting problems and working as a mathematician, however, requires a further faith — a faith in the overall coherence of mathematics and in our ability to apprehend it.

I think the proper scientific analogue is nicely raised in Max Tegmark’s excellent paper on neo-Platonism. In order to work, the physicist must believe that we do not reside within the “physics doomed” quadrant of the diagram on page 12 of that paper. The point is that physics and mathematics are both epistemologically daring activities. I’ll  hasten to add that this in no way implies the truth or validity of the particularly bold prior commitments that the physicist and the mathematician hold, consciously or unconsciously. Freddie and Led have done us a service by reminding us of just how non-foundational these enterprises are. They rest on strong basic beliefs about the nature of the universe and the nature of our minds.

The inevitable response, and one that I expect to see in the comments, is that philosophers of physics and philosophers of mathematics have come up with systems within which these activities make sense even if they are divorced from Truth. Some of these systems even give explanations for the observed coherence, consistency, and success of these fields without making any appeal to correspondence with reality.

This is entirely true, and I won’t contest it, what I will say is that however successful these systems are philosophically, they are laughably out of line with the psychology of actual, practicing mathematicians and scientists. Anecdotally, I have never met a mathematician who, when asked what he does for a living, says: “I shuffle formal symbols in arbitrary patterns that are internally consistent and make sense to me.” Nor have I met a physicist who would reply: “I make tautological statements about internal questions related to the socially constructed version of reality that I’ve received.”

Freddie responds to Will’s giraffe story:

Questions persist, for me. I have always found and continue to find inductive or consequentialist justifications for objectivist truth frameworks kind of intuitively odd. Will Wilson’s response has met with praise, and justly so. I do want to say something, though, regarding the intellectual prowess of giraffes. Will says,

the humble Giraffe is well adapted to its environment, but will never come to understand particle physics or the workings of its own neurophysiology. How are we to know that we are not like Giraffes, only with considerably wider possible-knowledge horizons? A simple response is that we haven’t failed yet. The theories we build in order to explain the universe around us are remarkably, even distressingly successful…. Let us return to the giraffes! There is no evolutionary pressure to having minds that can figure out U(1) x SU(2) x SU(3) symmetry, or why it is that the spin of an electron has to be what it is (also due to symmetry constraints).
There’s something we need to add here, though: not only does the giraffe not know how to understand electron spin; it does not know that there is such a thing as not knowing how to understand electron spin. It’s not just that the giraffe can’t answer the question, but that its limited consciousness is incapable of realizing that such a question might be posed. What might be the case, but we can’t know, is that there are problems that we are similarly unaware of. If you’ll forgive me for invoking Donald Rumsfeld, there are known unknowns– the reconciliation of relativistic gravity with quantum mechanics; the Riemann hypothesis– but there might also be unknown unknowns, things that we don’t know we don’t know. If this were true, it would undercut what Will is saying; it shouldn’t surprise us that with time we solve the problems we apprehend, but it also shouldn’t surprise us if there are questions we aren’t even aware are questions. (You can add a “yet” to the end of that, if you’re inclined.)

Is this deductively compelling? Of course not. I don’t expect to convince anyone of anything with such a thought experiment, particularly people of a more harder nosed disposition. Such questions would have to exist to be a compelling argument against Will’s inductive attitude towards human knowledge, and of course, we won’t know them until we know them, and then we might start solving them. I’m not asking anyone to take them on faith and decide anything. I just think the question is interesting. You’d be surprised, I think, of the amount of rigor you can maintain even after you have let go of the idea that you have to prove everything to a particular level of deductive satisfaction, on the level of intellectual play.

Now, you could accuse me here of having the kind of theology-echoing considerations that I was criticizing before– for where could these questions lie if not in the human mind? (When I echoed Sartre in saying that, if everyone believed in fascism, fascism would be the truth of man, a commenter took me to mean that I thought morality was a matter of majority rule. I meant it in a more simple way than that: when people say that there would still be an anti-fascist morality that exists independent of the fact that everyone in the world supported fascism, I am wondering literally where that morality could be said to reside.) What I would say (and, trust me, this is all conjectural) is that the questions that we don’t know we aren’t asking wouldn’t exist until we discover them, but that the possibility that they could be discovered would be enough to trouble Will’s point. If this is confusing to you, you’re not alone, and I’d love to hear ideas in the comments.

Chris Dierkes at The League:

Freddie’s post is filled with pleas for understanding and reading in good faith.  Freddie would I think respond by saying that for him, taking the notion that we can understand each other and we can self-disclose in not totally arbitrary and (at least) somewhat meaningful ways is a useful way to proceed.

But if that is his response (and again I’m guessing here, he would know better than I), then why wouldn’t a commenter who by Freddie’s lights is a “bad” reader, simply respond by saying something to the effect of:

“What you Freddie call reading/commenting in bad faith is what I take to be a useful way of proceeding along with apparently quite a few others,  given your response to the comments.”

Just to be clear, I agree with Freddie that many of his responders rather ignorantly misread him (at best) or at worst simply had their pre-arraigned views that they simply fired at him.

I don’t think it fair to call all forms of pluralism relativism.  Pluralism can be true pluralism with humility, some skepticism but nevertheless ability to make choices and stand for them in the world.  I think Freddie represents this position quite articulately.  It’s not in the end my position, but I can appreciate those who hold it genuinely as I believe Freddie does.

Still I don’t think Freddie has grounds to ask for better reading/commenting from his interlocutors given the admittedly subjetivist orientation of his position.  He certainly wants to have such a grounds for his criticism, but I don’t know where that ground is located from within his worldview.  I think he’s wanting to have it both ways and I’m not sure he can legitimately do so and still hold true to his position.

But then again you already should have guessed that given that I said I don’t share his view.

Back to Sam Harris. Sean Carroll at Discover:

Morality and science operate in very different ways. In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse. If I believe in the Big Bang model and you believe in the Steady State cosmology, I can point to the successful predictions of the cosmic background radiation, light element nucleosynthesis, evolution of large-scale structure, and so on. Eventually you would either agree or be relegated to crackpot status. But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale — but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it. Who decides what is a successful life? It’s ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.

Harris is doing exactly what Hume warned against, in a move that is at least as old as Plato: he’s noticing that most people are, as a matter of empirical fact, more concerned about the fate of primates than the fate of insects, and taking that as evidence that we ought to be more concerned about them; that it is morally correct to have those feelings. But that’s a non sequitur. After all, not everyone is all that concerned about the happiness and suffering of primates, or even of other human beings; some people take pleasure in torturing them. And even if they didn’t, again, so what? We are simply stating facts about how human beings feel, from which we have no warrant whatsoever to conclude things about how they should feel.

Attempts to derive ought from is are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they’ve done it, you don’t have to check their math; you know that they’ve made a mistake. Or, to choose a different mathematical analogy, any particular judgment about right and wrong is like Euclid’s parallel postulate in geometry; there is not a unique choice that is compatible with the other axioms, and different choices could in principle give different interesting moral philosophies.

A big part of the temptation to insist that moral judgments are objectively true is that we would like to have justification for arguing against what we see as moral outrages when they occur. But there’s no reason why we can’t be judgmental and firm in our personal convictions, even if we are honest that those convictions don’t have the same status as objective laws of nature. In the real world, when we disagree with someone else’s moral judgments, we try to persuade them to see things our way; if that fails, we may (as a society) resort to more dramatic measures like throwing them in jail. But our ability to persuade others that they are being immoral is completely unaffected — and indeed, may even be hindered — by pretending that our version of morality is objectively true. In the end, we will always be appealing to their own moral senses, which may or may not coincide with ours.

The unfortunate part of this is that Harris says a lot of true and interesting things, and threatens to undermine the power of his argument by insisting on the objectivity of moral judgments. There are not objective moral truths (where “objective” means “existing independently of human invention”), but there are real human beings with complex sets of preferences. What we call “morality” is an outgrowth of the interplay of those preferences with the world around us, and in particular with other human beings. The project of moral philosophy is to make sense of our preferences, to try to make them logically consistent, to reconcile them with the preferences of others and the realities of our environments, and to discover how to fulfill them most efficiently. Science can be extremely helpful, even crucial, in that task. We live in a universe governed by natural laws, and it makes all the sense in the world to think that a clear understanding of those laws will be useful in helping us live our lives — for example, when it comes to abortion or gay marriage. When Harris talks about how people can reach different states of happiness, or how societies can become more successful, the relevance of science to these goals is absolutely real and worth stressing.

Which is why it’s a shame to get the whole thing off on the wrong foot by insisting that values are simply a particular version of empirical facts. When people share values, facts can be very helpful to them in advancing their goals. But when they don’t share values, there’s no way to show that one of the parties is “objectively wrong.” And when you start thinking that there is, a whole set of dangerous mistakes begins to threaten. It’s okay to admit that values can’t be derived from facts — science is great, but it’s not the only thing in the world.

Sam Harris responds to Carroll:

I wonder how Carroll would react if I breezily dismissed his physics with a reference to something Robert Oppenheimer once wrote, on the assumption that it was now an unmovable object around which all future human thought must flow. Happily, that’s not how physics works. But neither is it how philosophy works. Frankly, it’s not how anything that works, works.

Carroll appears to be confused about the foundations of human knowledge. For instance, he clearly misunderstands the relationship between scientific truth and scientific consensus. He imagines that scientific consensus signifies the existence of scientific truth (while scientific controversy just means that there is more work to be done). And yet, he takes moral controversy to mean that there is no such thing as moral truth (while moral consensus just means that people are deeply conditioned for certain preferences). This is a double standard that I pointed out in my talk, and it clearly rigs the game against moral truth. The deeper issue, however, is that truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: It is, after all, quite possible for everyone to be wrong, or for one lone person to be right. Consensus is surely a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.

Strangely, Carroll also imagines that there is greater consensus about scientific truth than about moral truth.  Taking humanity as a whole, I am quite certain that he is mistaken about this. There is no question that there is a greater consensus that cruelty is generally wrong (a common moral intuition) than that the passage of time varies with velocity (special relativity) or that humans and lobsters share an ancestor (evolution). Needless to say, I’m not inclined to make too much of this consensus, but it is worth noting that scientists like Carroll imagine far more moral diversity than actually exists. While certain people believe some very weird things about morality, principles like the Golden Rule are very well subscribed. If we wanted to ground the epistemology of science on democratic principles, as Carroll suggests we might, the science of morality would have an impressive head start over the science of physics. [1]

The real problem, however, is that critics like Carroll think that there is no deep intellectual or moral issue here to worry about. Carroll encourages us to just admit that a universal conception of human values is a pipe dream. Thereafter, those of us who want to make life on earth better, or at least not worse, can happily collaborate, knowing all the while that we are seeking to further our merely provincial, culturally constructed notions of moral goodness. Once we have our values in hand, and cease to worry about their relationship to the Truth, science can help us get what we want out of life.

There are many things wrong with this approach. The deepest problem is that it strikes me as patently mistaken about the nature of reality and about what we can reasonably mean by words like “good,” “bad,” “right,” and “wrong.” In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What’s the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.” Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here’s the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is—again, by definition—the least interesting thing in the universe.

So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already far too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of values does not appear to me to be an arbitrary starting point.

Carroll responds:

At bottom, the issue is this: there exist real moral questions that no amount of empirical research alone will help us solve. If you think that it’s immoral to eat meat, and I think it’s perfectly okay, neither one of us is making a mistake, in the sense that Fred Hoyle was making a mistake when he believed that conditions in the universe have been essentially unchanging over time. We’re just starting from different premises.

The crucial point is that the difference between sets of incompatible moral assumptions is not analogous to the difference between believing in the Big Bang vs. believing in the Steady State model; but it is analogous to believing in science vs. being a radical epistemological skeptic who claims not to trust their sense data. In the cosmological-models case, we trust that we agree on the underlying norms of science and together we form a functioning community; in the epistemological case, we don’t agree on the underlying assumptions, and we have to hope to agree to disagree and work out social structures that let us live together in peace. None of which means that those of us who do share common moral assumptions shouldn’t set about the hard work of articulating those assumptions and figuring out how to maximize their realization, a project of which science is undoubtedly going to be an important part. Which is what we should be talking about all along.

The second point I wanted to mention was the justification we might have for passing moral judgments over others. Not to be uncharitable, but it seems that the biggest motivation most people have for insisting that morals can be grounded in facts is that they want it to be true — because if it’s not true, how can we say the Taliban are bad people?

That’s easy: the same way I can say radical epistemological skepticism is wrong. Even if there is no metaphysically certain grounding from which I can rationally argue with a hard-core skeptic or a Taliban supporter, nothing stops me from using the fundamental assumptions that I do accept, and acting accordingly. There is a weird sort of backwards-logic that gets deployed at this juncture: “if you don’t believe that morals are objectively true, you can’t condemn the morality of the Taliban.” Why not? Watch me: “the morality of the Taliban is loathsome and should be resisted.” See? I did it!

The only difference is that I can only present logical reasons to support that conclusion to other members of my morality community who proceed from similar assumptions. For people who don’t, I can’t prove that the Taliban is immoral. But so what? What exactly is the advantage of being in possession of a rigorous empirical argument that the Taliban is immoral? Does anyone think they will be persuaded? How we actually act in the world in the face of things we perceive to be immoral seems to depend in absolutely no way on whether I pretend that morality is grounded in facts about Nature. (Of course there exist people who will argue that the Taliban should be left alone because we shouldn’t pass our parochial Western judgment on their way of life — and I disagree with those people, because we clearly do not share underlying moral assumptions.)

Needless to say, it doesn’t matter what the advantage of a hypothetical objective morality would be — even if the world would be a better place if morals were objective, that doesn’t make it true. That’s the most disappointing part of the whole discussion, to see people purportedly devoted to reason try to concoct arguments in favor of a state of affairs because they want it to be true, rather than because it is.

Christopher Schoen:

Harris does have some thoughtful things to say in this lecture. He makes a strong case for moral reasoning (though I would say it conflicts with his main thesis that morality is empirical.) And he makes the important point that we do have the right to judge other people’s moral practices, such as shame killings. But ultimately his animus for religion drives him to illogical conclusions, such as the notion that what the Taliban lacks is sufficient science about “human flourishing” to make good moral choices1. By this standard, how much less moral must the ancient Greeks have been, who knew so much less science than the medieval Arabs. And how much more immoral the nomadic tribes that preceded them thoughout Africa and Asia minor. How immoral that first human couple must have been, in their African Eden!

What this hyper-utilitarianism (which marries Mill with the logical positivists) primarily accomplishes is this. It  obviates the need to look reflectively at evil. When evil can be equated with a simple paucity of learning, like deficiency of a vitamin, there is no need to look within our own hearts for its seeds. All the world’s darkness can be projected outwards onto people we couldn’t have less in common with. We don’t want to subjegate women; we don’t want to tyrannize innocents; we don’t want to convert the whole globe to our ethos, and exterminate those who resist (wait, scratch that last one.) Unfortunately it is far more likely that the opposite is true. Not even all the science of John Faustus can make us good, if we won’t season it with introspection.


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