Discussion in 'Current Events' started by Raoul, Dec 22, 2010.
I'll remember that for next season.
I think it might be altogether easier if we simply agree that Dan Dennett is right about pretty much everything and drink tea at the same time.
Or beer if it after 5pm.
At least he has a nice beard.
And he's so vague. Is he saying that science can determine human values (don't think he does), or is he rather saying that science can inform our moral judgments about values (such as suffering is bad mmkay which seems to be the one moral value he is interested in)? Is he talking about politics or morality? I think the former, he seems to think the latter. Science, fact and philosophy seem to be used interchangeably... He's a mess.
Yes, I don't doubt that he has read widely, and of course there's nothing wrong with trying to answer the big questions in philosophy of mind. But he sometimes sounds as if he thinks a bit of common sense is all it takes. He should have a bit of humility. And yes, in answer to Saliph's question, a) no I suspect it is not possible to create universal scientific solutions to ethical problems, and b) if it is, I'm pretty sure Sam Harris isn't going to do it... basically because he's a pop science writer, even if he is one with a philosophy degree.
He's also one with a phd in neuroscience, to be fair.
Maybe we should ask a true pop scientist then?
Again with the titles, earlier on a 20 year old undergraduate was a "Princeton philosopher", now Harris has a degree in philosophy so he probably knows about Kant and Plato. Well yes, he has a bleeding bachelor's degree and of course he's heard about Kant and Plato, but a bachelor degree doesn't make you an expert on Plato and Kant at all.
Physics is boring but at least Brian Cox is eyecandy, can't say the same about Harris the great Stanford philosopher.
Again. Phd in neuroscience.
The bit I posted earlier from his TED lecture really shows up how he thinks about moral issues:
"Nothing to see here, what seems like genuinely incommensurable values is actually just a simple matter of common sense. Great problem of women's bodies, solved. Right, next up, Free Will...
When he presents a proper peer-reviewed paper blowing open some key philosophy of mind problem, then I'll listen.
You're probably going to tell me he's done that. Cnut.
Now this guy I'm prepared to listen to on any question. But he's a Manc.
Although he does have a worrying propensity for wearing a T-shirt under a suit jacket.
Well I don't know about "blowing open", but this is fairly interesting.
I just think you can't really doubt the credentials of someone with a phd in neuroscience, even if you started doubting them when you just thought they had a bachelors in philosophy
I thought this thread is about ethics, not neuroscience.
- Read his book, that's really all I can say. Or read this article, where he responds in Huffington Post to some of the criticism the book received, and touches on some of this.
"Master suppression techniques" (hersketeknikker?) like saying he's too weak to live by his own values, and that he's just a pop science writer and his argument is a mess, is unimpressive, anti-intellectual garbage, and, quite frankly, rather pathetic when coming from a bunch of internet warriors on a football forum who seems to have made it official caf dogma that Harris is an intellectual inanity, an idiot and a feckwit no matter what he says (seemingly without knowing much about the guy).
- It's somewhat ironic for you to lambast Harris for his lack of humility, considering some of the condescending arrogance you (and others) have continually spouted against him in this thread, without engaging his arguments, and, I suspect, without even having read the book.
I don't see why you'd even bother if he's such an irrelevant, cretinous fool. Then leave the thread for those of us who thinks he actually has something interesting to say. This ad hominem bullshit is really getting old.
Are you actually, genuinely suggesting that having a phd in cognitive neuroscience is irrelevant when talking about the question "can science determine human values"?
Nimic, it was Saliph who brought up his degree in philosophy in relation to Plato and Kant, I'm pretty sure neuroscience hasn't made him a better moral philosopher. I'm sure neuroscience is very relevant to the book he wrote, but probably not to many of the questions he deals with in it, and certainly not to many of the criticisms he's had both here and in reviews. (But if I were to answer your question with a straight yes or no I would land on yes rather than no.)
You're being a bit disingenuous here. You're doing exactly the same thing when talking about Singer, claiming Harris handed him his arse without backing up that claim.
The topics are interesting even if his contribution isn't very interesting IMO.
- Read the context...
- Well, I tried backing up that claim by explaining to you how Singer repeatedly failed to grasp the core of Harris' argument (on that point).
You didn't explain that Singer failed to grasp the argument, you claimed it. Different things. And I replied to that, and you didn't want to reply to my reply. I wish you'd respond to my questions and criticism rather than throw a hissy fit. I've work to do so I can't go read his book (I'll read the link some day later). If you want this thread to be on topic you could try to explain how he deals with some of the problems we so wrongfully see in his thinking. But no, you just wave them away - Harris is just misunderstood, go read the book!
Should we have a disclaimer in this forum that we're not allowed to comment on debates and lectures unless we've read the speaker's entire oeuvre?
Are you Harris? Your rhetoric in this thread is a bit hysterical, and it isn't usually.
To clarify, I have no doubt that Sam Harris is a very clever man. I haven't read his book, but I've watched some of his talks and read some of the posts on his site. I am suspicious of his claims about some very old and big problems in philosophy.
Look at it this way. Stephen Fry has (I believe) a double first in English from Cambridge. He has a long-standing fascination with language, speaks several fluently, and often writes entertainingly and insightfully on the subject. He's also an extremely clever man, adept in all sorts of fields including things like chess that are unrelated to his degree. But if he started suggesting that, say, a long-standing problem in Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar, that has baffled the finest minds in linguistics, is actually fairly easily soluble if you just demystify it a bit and apply a basic, well-known methodology to the problem... I'd essentially dismiss it out of hand.
Perhaps that's arrogant, but, appearances to the contrary, I don't have time to read everything, so I apply certain filters to do with whether stuff sounds like bollocks to me, while being prepared to be proved wrong. I suspect you do the same.
But sure, happy to bow out of the thread. Knock yourself out.
Fine, don't read the book, but if you can't be arsed to do that then don't expect me to spend my precious time explaining things to you which are dealt with by the person in question.
Second, I am not Sam Harris (though it might seem like it by the way that I vehemently defend him in this thread). I have no philosophical or scientific education (yet), and naturally I therefore find this stuff complicated and difficult to grasp. It took me a year to really understand and be able to repudiate and answer questions and arguments on the topic of criticism of religion (and to communicate those in an intelligible way), after hundreds of hours of researching the issue, and I've just gotten started with this stuff.
That's fair enough, Saliph, but if that is the case then I suggest that you are a bit hasty in declaring Harris the winner in these debates. If you are looking for further reading on the subject, I'll be happy to provide you with suggestions via pm.
Right on cue.
Fair enough. I may have come across as somewhat hysterical during the course of this, but that's due to increasing frustration and annoyance at the continual attempts to portray Harris as some sort of amateur -a village idiot in intellectual circles - mostly by people who clearly have not even investigated his arguments in any depth, and evidently know nothing about him or his work.
- There may be a good rebuttal to what Harris says in that clip, but in any case Singer failed to provide it (in my amateur opinion).
Sure, bring it on.
But it should be alright to see his lectures and comment on them without having read his books, shouldn't it? If Harris fails to convey his ideas through his lectures, that is something he can be blamed for.
Perhaps. But this is an extremely complex issue, as I'm sure you would agree, and if we assume that there was a way to successfully argue for the science of morality, I don't think a two hour long lecture would be sufficient to kill off every objection that could be made. I think there are just too many philosophical road blocks that can be put up to be able to do that.
Haven't watched this the whole way through, but he seems to be advocating a Utilitarian approach to morality; "well being is King," and as far as I've seen he casually dismisses any contention with "well, any alternative is misery and suffering and no one wants that." He points out extreme examples, with the Taliban throwing acid on the face of a child or whatever.
As we all know, however, morality can be very very subtle - what's the best action to take in a certain situation? If I want to jump down from a tree, I know that I have to be careful to flex my knees else the physical laws of gravity will, essentially, shatter my legs. That's a fact. If I want to survive, I know that the physical laws of my body needs water to sustain itself. That's a fact. Now, if I choose to spend a grand on myself without giving a thought to the starving people of this world, is it a fact that I am morally wrong? I am valuing a fractional increase of my own well being as opposed to the greater increase of well being for many impoverished people that I could help feed. Why is this any different from throwing acid over a poor girl's face?
It's like the thought experiment - I forget what it's called - of the choice between saving five people at the expense of one. Imagine a train track; five people tied to one set of tracks, one person tied to the other set of tracks. You have the power to divert the train onto either one. Better to save five then one, right?
Now imagine this. The train is on its way to ploughing through five people. You spot a man on a bridge, presumably rather large, who would stop the train if you pushed him over the edge. The same result ensues - you've saved five people at the expense of one. What's the difference? Yet there's a moral inclination that it would be the wrong thing to do. According to Utilitarianism, though, its the morally right thing to do.
How does this tie in with my point? Humanity seems to react differently depending on how a situation is framed. Inaction trumps action in the morality sweepstakes, yet how are we, as members of a rich Western society, any less morally repulsive than the Taliban if we do not part with much of our money to save the lives of many? In fact, the collective well being of all the lives saved would be exponentially increased compared to one little girl without a face full of acid. But no doubt Harris carries on talking about horrible injustices that people do, without making reference to the fact that under a Utilitarian system it's as much to do with what people don't do.
Yeah, and if you're an utilitarian at least be a bullet biting type a la Singer. I respect him for that, for taking his own ideas seriously. I often get the impression that utilitarians doesn't, they want to have their cake and eat it too, they want to have both the intuitions that utilitarianism captures and those that fly in the face of it. Singer's honest at least. (PS I'm not really talking about Harris here!)
Harris deals with this briefly in the article I posted above (referencing Singer, coincidentally)
Nevertheless, Blackford is right to point out that our general approach to morality does not demand that we maximize global well-being. We are selfish to one degree or another; we lack complete information about the consequences of our actions; and even where we possess such information, our interests and preferences often lead us to ignore it. But these facts obscure deeper questions: In what sense can an action be morally good? And what does it mean to make a good action better?
For instance, it seems good for me to buy my daughter a birthday present, all things considered, because this will make both of us happy. Few people would fault me for spending some of my time and money in this way. But what about all the little girls in the world who suffer terribly at this moment for want of resources? Here is where an ethicist like Peter Singer will pounce, arguing that there actually is something morally questionable—even reprehensible—about my buying my daughter a birthday present, given my knowledge of how much good my time and money could do elsewhere. What should I do? Singer’s argument makes me uncomfortable, but only for a moment. It is simply a fact about me that the suffering of other little girls is often out of sight and out of mind—and my daughter’s birthday is no easier to ignore than an asteroid impact. Can I muster a philosophical defense of my narrow focus? Perhaps. It might be that Singer’s case leaves out some important details: what would happen if everyone in the developed world ceased to shop for birthday presents? Wouldn’t the best of human civilization just come crashing down upon the worst? How can we spread wealth to the developing world if we do not create wealth in the first place? These reflections, self-serving and otherwise—along with a thousand other facts about my mind for which Sean Carroll still has no “metric”—land me in a toy store, looking for something that isn’t pink.
So, yes, it is true that my thoughts about global well-being did not amount to much in this instance. And Blackford is right to say that most people wouldn’t judge me for it. But what if there were a way for me to buy my daughter a present and also cure another little girl of cancer at no extra cost? Wouldn’t this be better than just buying the original present? Imagine if I declined this opportunity saying, “What is that to me? I don’t care about other little girls and their cancers.” It is only against an implicit notion of global well-being that we can judge my behavior to be less good than it might otherwise be. It is true that no one currently demands that I spend my time seeking, in every instance, to maximize global well-being—nor do I demand it of myself—but if global well-being could be maximized, that would be better (by the only definition of “better” that makes any sense).
He's also dealt with the trolley problem numerous times.
I read Harris's reply to his critics and I can't say I am convinced that you can measure morality in any meaningful way or at least not sufficiently to apply the scientific method to it. We can all agree that everyone being happy is morally preferable to everyone being unhappy I suppose and that slaughtering millions is worse than stoking cuddly puppies. However, I don't see how that helps us decide much more subtle moral "problems".
The other problem I see is that Harris's whole premise relies on there being a conscious mind at work. My suspicion is that we don't know what consciousness is so trying to define something that relies on it becomes problematic and possibly meaningless.
Harris seems highly educated but rather dim (or just disingenuous). Here he is being dim (or disingenuous), obfuscating and not even wrong.
I'm not really convinced here. Huge sacrifices can be made without stopping the production of wealth; or at least, there has to be far more scope for balance than there currently is. The capacity to produce wealth isn't the "best of civilization" in my book, either - and he's presuming its value by using terms such as 'best' in the first place. Perhaps he deals with the immorality of billionaires or multi-millionaires, but it seems hard to justify their wealth hoarding in these terms as a Utilitarian.
I think he also presents the justificatory criteria for morality far too simply, too. Well-being is an important component of how we think and how we act, but beyond the very worst cases (It is better if we all do not suffer in misery), there are other values that we hold in the utmost regard. Respect. Duty. Loyalty. Dignity. A political conception of justice - eg. a whole town is convinced that a man has committed a murder, when the sheriff knows this not to be the case. However, if he lets the man go the town will riot. In Utilitarian terms, it is better for the man to die than for the collective well being of the town to descend into chaos. I'm sure he's discussed this kind of argument in detail before, but I'd be interested in what he has to say.
Saliph the samster probably has some veiled threats for his counterparts in those long posts of his, angry after Harris is being attacked/questioned/not agreed with.
On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God
The latest wave of Muslim hysteria and violence has now spread to over twenty countries. The walls of our embassies and consulates have been breached, their precincts abandoned to triumphant mobs, and many people have been murdered—all in response to an unwatchable Internet video titled “Innocence of Muslims.” Whether over a film, a cartoon, a novel, a beauty pageant, or an inauspiciously named teddy bear, the coming eruption of pious rage is now as predictable as the dawn. This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas. And I fear it will be with us for the rest of our lives.
Our panic and moral confusion were at first sublimated in attacks upon the hapless Governor Romney. I am no fan of Romney’s, and I would find the prospect of his presidency risible if it were not so depressing, but he did accurately detect the first bleats of fear in the Obama administration’s reaction to this crisis. Romney got the timing of events wrong—confusing, as many did, a statement made by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for an official government response to the murder of Americans in Libya. But the truth is that the White House struck the same note of apology, disavowing the offending speech while claiming to protect free speech in principle. It may seem a small detail, given the heat of the moment—but so is a quivering lip.
Our government followed the path of appeasement further by attempting to silence the irrepressible crackpot Pastor Terry Jones, who had left off burning copies of the Qur’an just long enough to promote the film. The administration also requested that Google remove “Innocence of Muslims” from its servers. These maneuvers attest to one of two psychological and diplomatic realities: Either our government is unwilling to address the problem at hand, or the problem is so vast and terrifying that we have decided to placate the barbarians at the gate.
The contagion of moral cowardice followed its usual course, wherein liberal journalists and pundits began to reconsider our most basic freedoms in light of the sadomasochistic fury known as “religious sensitivity” among Muslims. Contributors to The New York Times and NPR spoke of the need to find a balance between free speech and freedom of religion—as though the latter could possibly be infringed by a YouTube video. As predictable as Muslim bullying has become, the moral confusion of secular liberals appears to be part of the same clockwork.
Consider what is actually happening: Some percentage of the world’s Muslims—Five percent? Fifteen? Fifty? It’s not yet clear—is demanding that all non-Muslims conform to the strictures of Islamic law. And where they do not immediately resort to violence in their protests, they threaten it. Carrying a sign that reads “Behead Those Who Insult the Prophet” may still count as an example of peaceful protest, but it is also an assurance that infidel blood would be shed if the imbecile holding the placard only had more power. This grotesque promise is, of course, fulfilled in nearly every Muslim society. To make a film like “Innocence of Muslims” anywhere in the Middle East would be as sure a method of suicide as the laws of physics allow.
What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book? Questions of this kind are obscene. Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.
At moments like this, we inevitably hear—from people who don’t know what it’s like to believe in paradise—that religion is just a way of channeling popular unrest. The true source of the problem can be found in the history of western aggression in the region. It is our policies, rather than our freedoms, that they hate. I believe that the future of liberalism—and much else—depends on our overcoming this ruinous self-deception. Religion only works as a pretext for political violence because many millions of people actually believe what they say they believe: that imaginary crimes like blasphemy and apostasy are killing offenses.
Most secular liberals think that all religions are the same, and they consider any suggestion to the contrary a sign of bigotry. Somehow, this article of faith survives daily disconfirmation. Our language is largely to blame for this. As I have pointed out on many occasions, “religion” is a term like “sports”: Some sports are peaceful but spectacularly dangerous (“free solo” rock climbing, street luge); some are safer but synonymous with violence (boxing, mixed martial arts); and some entail no more risk of serious injury than standing in the shower (bowling, badminton). To speak of “sports” as a generic activity makes it impossible to discuss what athletes actually do, or the physical attributes required to do it. What do all sports have in common, apart from breathing? Not much. The term “religion” is scarcely more useful.
Consider Mormonism: Many of my fellow liberals would consider it morally indecent to count Romney’s faith against him. In their view, Mormonism must be just like every other religion. The truth, however, is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has more than its fair share of quirks. For instance, its doctrine was explicitly racist until 1978, at which point God apparently changed his mind about black people (a few years after Archie Bunker did) and recommended that they be granted the full range of sacraments and religious responsibilities. By this time, Romney had been an adult and an exceptionally energetic member of his church for more than a decade.
Unlike the founders of most religions, about whom very little is known, Mormonism is the product of the plagiarisms and confabulations of an obvious con man, Joseph Smith, whose adventures among the credulous were consummated (in every sense) in the full, unsentimental glare of history. Given how much we know about Smith, it is harder to be a Mormon than it is to be a Christian. A firmer embrace of the preposterous is required—and the fact that Romney can manage it says something about him, just as it would if he were a Scientologist proposing to park his E-meter in the Oval Office. The spectrum between rational belief and self-serving delusion has some obvious increments: It is one thing to believe that Jesus existed and was probably a remarkable human being. It is another to accept, as most Christians do, that he was physically resurrected and will return to earth to judge the living and the dead. It is yet another leap of faith too far to imagine, as all good Mormons must, that he will work his cosmic magic from the hallowed ground of Jackson County, Missouri.
That final, provincial detail matters. It makes Mormonism objectively less plausible than run-of-the-mill Christianity—as does the related claim that Jesus visited the “Nephites” in America at some point after his resurrection. The moment one adds seer stones, sacred underpants, the planet Kolob, and a secret handshake required to win admittance into the highest heaven, Mormonism stands revealed for what it is: the religious equivalent of rhythmic gymnastics.
The point, however, is that I can say all these things about Mormonism, and disparage Joseph Smith to my heart’s content, without fearing that I will be murdered for it. Secular liberals ignore this distinction at every opportunity and to everyone’s peril. Take a moment to reflect upon the existence of the musical The Book of Mormon. Now imagine the security precautions that would be required to stage a similar production about Islam. The project is unimaginable—not only in Beirut, Baghdad, or Jerusalem, but in New York City.
The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary. Muslims must learn that if they make belligerent and fanatical claims upon the tolerance of free societies, they will meet the limits of that tolerance. And Governor Romney, though he is wrong about almost everything under the sun (including, very likely, the sun), is surely right to believe that it is time our government delivered this message without blinking.
I don't give a feck what anyone thinks, Sam's the man. On this topic, he says it better and more eloquently than anyone.
I prefer the article that he wrote a few years ago for Huffington Post, though, which touches on a lot of the same: Losing Our Spines To Save Our Necks
I can't see any solutions from Harris.
The US, and European governments can't do much more than keep a diplomatic lid on these issues. There's just too much at stake business wise and strategically.
What are you getting at Sults ? Are you suggesting that if random people continue with insulting cartoons and films, that it will affect the global economy ?
Was watching a documentary on the Freedom Riders yesterday and reminded me of the situation with this set of mob attacks.
Amazingly American politicians were attacking the expression of the civil rights campaigners and condoning the acts of violence as justified because they were being deliberately agitated..
Ultimately, there is no right to not be offended and a person's religious rights only extend to themselves and others who consent to it. If you don't like the film, don't watch it. If you really don't like it, peacefully protest it or boycott those involved. Violence just makes you look like you are wrong and know it and are trying to intimidate others into compliance.
Unfortunately, we are on a collision course between people who are offended by freedom of expression and people who are offended by the suppression of their freedom of expression through either law or threat of violence. I expect even more explicit attempts at pissing off Muslims in the near future as a way of saying 'deal with it'
There's no way any government of the day can deal with these matters, both in the West and in Muslim dominated countries. They'll just have to tip toe along. I can't personally see there being a solution. Both sides are entrenched in believing they are right. It's here to stay unfortunately.
Separate names with a comma.