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Can Science Determine Moral Values?

Can Science Determine Moral Values?

A challenge from and dialogue with Marc Hauser about The Moral Arc

Shortly after the publication of The Moral Arc , Marc Hauser—the evolutionary biologist and author of Moral Minds and Evilicious, important books on the evolutionary origins and development of our moral faculty—wrote to me to express his appreciation of my book and to voice a challenge to my claim that science can determine human values, tell us right from wrong, and adjudicate moral dilemmas. His point was well made and represents the majority view among scientists and philosophers that there is an unbridgeable barrier between Is and Ought, between the way something is and the way something ought to be. I consider this an important topic and devote a portion of the first chapter of The Moral Arc to it, so I thought it might be instructive if Marc and I had a dialogue about it that we would publish Online for readers to comment on and contribute to in order to advance the subject through the process Karl Popper called “conjecture and refutation,” one of the key elements to the scientific method.

—Michael Shermer

Moral Minds (book cover)

Evilicious (book cover)

Marc Hauser:

The Moral Arc (TMA) is a tour de force, a celebration of our moral progress, and an inspiration for times when we see the world as dark and dangerous. But as in any tour de force, there are sections that are controversial and others that seem to provide less than the explanatory adequacy championed. I want to take up the latter, focusing in particular on the fundamental thesis that runs throughout the book, articulated succinctly on page 3 of the Prologue:

… we can trace the moral arc through science with data from many different lines of inquiry, all of which demonstrate that in general, as a species, we are becoming increasingly moral. As well, I argue that most of the moral development of the past several centuries has been the result of secular not religious forces, and that the most important of these that emerged from the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment are science and reason, terms that I use in the broadest sense to mean reasoning through a series of arguments and then confirming the conclusions are true through empirical verification.

In brief, though I fully agree that reasoning by means of careful argumentation has and will continue to serve us well on our path to moral progress, I disagree that science and scientific evidence will settle or even help settle many of the moral challenges we face as individuals and as a species. As should be clear from the empirical work that I and many of my students and collaborators have carried out on the nature of moral judgments (see, for example, Joshua Greene’s book Moral Tribes)

Moral Tribes (book cover)

I fully support scientific inquiry into morality. But I don’t believe that this work will settle key moral problems; rather, it will illuminate the nature of our moral instincts, together with the role that cultures may play in bending both our judgments and our actions. In fact, as I see it, some of the primary challenges to your thesis come from the moral dilemmas and scenarios that have been used in the scientific work of late, and that you discuss in TMA. Let me begin, therefore, close to where you begin in the book, with the famous trolley problem.

The moral philosopher Philippa Foot first introduced the trolley problem in a paper focused on abortion and the doctrine of double effect. Fantasy dilemmas such as the trolley problem are introduced in philosophy to help us think through central moral issues in the absence of our real world connection to the problem. Thus, instead of wrestling with abortion per se, Foot wrestled with the reasons why we might or might not consider the means by which we carry out an action as more or less significant than the consequences of such actions; this distinction maps on, to a first approximation, to difference between deontological as opposed to utilitarian perspectives.

The original trolley problem asks us to consider whether the driver of a runaway (no brakes) trolley should allow it to continue down the track where it will run over and kill 5 workers or steer it onto a sidetrack where it will kill 1 worker. If one focuses on consequences, the answer is easy: turn the trolley, killing 1 worker but saving the lives of 5. But there are other considerations, including: the 1 worker on the side track is safe, so by turning the trolley, the driver is deciding that his life is less valuable than any single individual on the main track; the driver doesn’t intend to kill the 1, rather, he intends to save the 5, so the 1 worker’s death is a byproduct or side-effect; and so on.

trolley problem

In response to Foot’s case, the moral philosophers Judith Thomson and Frances Kamm spun off a railroad station’s worth of cases, all designed to disentangle the factors that might be in play when we are faced with competing moral outcomes. One of the most vivid spinoffs considered the case where a runaway trolley is empty, but a bystander is standing on the side of the track next to a very heavy man. If the bystander pushes this man onto the track, his weight will stop the trolley from advancing and killing the 5 workmen, but this man will of course die. Here, though the numbers are the same as in Foot’s case – 1 vs 5 – many of us feel a substantial difference. In particular, though the consequences seem to dominate our decision-making in the original case, the means seem to dominate our decision-making in this second case: though we may feel that turning the trolley makes good moral sense in the first case, pushing the man seems morally wrong in the second case.

Much has been discussed about these cases, and many others like them (see below). But the conclusions that have been drawn, including connections to applied issues such as abortion and euthanasia (see below) derive from careful deliberation, reflection and philosophical expertise, not scientific evidence. Where science has played a role-including some of my own work, as well as the contributions of John Mikhail, Joshua Greene, and some of the remarkable students I have had the privilege to work with (Fiery Cushman, Liane Young)-is in revealing how different factors influence people’s judgments. Consider one example, one that is highly relevant to a number of issues raised in TMA. Based on responses from thousands of subjects, judging hundreds of different dilemmas (Hauser et al., 2007; Banerjee et al, 2010), judgments about right or wrong were not influenced by gender, education, political affiliation or religious background, including a contrast between atheists and all those with some kind of religious background. This kind of evidence is of interest in terms of our understanding of the factors that may or may not guide moral judgments, but they don’t enable us to decide whether we should punish those who push the heavy man or reward them because they have contributed to greater human flourishing! The debate between deontological and utilitarian reasoning rages on, and science won’t decide which wins the day.

Consider next a different set or class of moral situations: active vs. passive euthanasia and incest. Each of these issues have fascinated philosophers and scientists, and much progress has been made in thinking about them. But none of the scientific evidence provides the means for deciding which position is the more morally progressive view, or is more likely to lead to human flourishing.

Euthanasia

In many countries, including the United States, it is legally permissible to allow someone who is in pain and suffering from an incurable disease to die (passive euthanasia), but legally forbidden to cause this person to die through lethal injection (active euthanasia). Countries that allow both active and passive euthanasia, such as the Netherlands, have taken this route because of careful reasoning, including arguments from philosophers. Scientific evidence didn’t push the Netherlands in this direction, though there is scientific evidence from some of my own work (Hauser et al., 2009) comparing how Dutch and American subjects judge the moral permissibility of actions as opposed to omissions in unfamiliar cases. Interestingly, the results show that although the Dutch have explicitly decided to endorse both the action of ending someone’s life and the omission of allowing someone to die, like Americans, they see actions as morally worse than omissions when the scenarios are unfamiliar. This is interesting with respect to the nature of our moral judgments, and the relative immunity of this system to cultural influences, but it doesn’t tell us whether the Americans are backwards or progressive in terms of the legality of euthanasia.

Incest

Scientists such as Jonathan Haidt have carried out terrific work showing how the emotion of disgust plays a role in guiding our moral judgments, including cases of incest. In his most famous case, when you tell people about a brother and sister who decide to have protected intercourse and keep it a secret, many find this morally wrong and definitely yucky, despite the fact that it is protected sex and thus, without reproductive consequences! But the fact that you might find incest disgusting and morally wrong, whereas someone else may not, doesn’t tell us whose view is morally superior, preferred, or more likely to lead to human flourishing. In fact, given that incest among relatively distant relatives, such as second cousins, is unlikely to lead to negative consequences for the developing fetus, one might argue that we should support those who are more tolerant of incest. And tell others to just get over their disgust!

In sum, scientific evidence provides increasingly interesting information on the nature of our moral judgments and actions, including a wealth of evidence that extends from genes to behavior. But most of this work plays no role in shaping the moral conversation. Scientific evidence can illuminate how human nature and nurture shape our moral judgments to these cases, but will not provide the ballast for adjudicating between arguments.

Michael Shermer:

Thank you for taking the time to read my book carefully Marc, and for articulating so clearly what most scientists and philosophers believe about the wall separating science and values.

First, I conjecture that it is “science and reason”-not just “science” in the narrow sense of running experiments in a lab and collecting data—that have been the major drivers of moral progress because they can and have determined moral values. (I reject the “philosophy is dead” notion recently proffered by a few popular scientists, because the philosophical tradition of reason and logic underlies all of science, and scientists use reason when deducing general principles from specific observations.) Ever since the Scientific Revolution, when scientists such as Bacon, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Harvey, and Newton discovered that the world is governed by natural laws and principles that can be revealed, understood, and used to make predictions and test hypotheses, thinkers in other fields during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment sought to understand the laws and principles that govern political, economic, legal, social, and moral systems, which they then used to make predictions and test hypotheses about how best we should live. Thomas Hobbes, Charles Montesquieu, Cesare Beccaria, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Immanuel Kant, François Quesnay, David Hume, Adam Smith, and others were all, in my reckoning, scientists who employed the best empirical and rational tools of their age. The term “scientist” didn’t exist then, so they are often referred to as philosophers or natural philosophers, but whatever terms we use my point is that they placed supreme value on reason and scientific inquiry, from which they discovered or derived such concepts as human natural rights, equal treatment under the law, individual autonomy, freedom of thought and expression, and other principles related to equality and liberty, on top of which they built a diverse, cosmopolitan worldview of Enlightenment Humanism.

Hobbes’s Leviathan, considered the most influential political treatise ever written, begins with atoms in motion and builds on observations and first principles to devise a rational- and empirical-based social system (he called himself the Galileo of civil society). In his book Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws), Montesquieu invoked Newton when he compared a well-functioning government to “the system of the universe” that includes “a power of gravitation” that “attracts” all bodies to “the center” (the monarch), and he employed the deductive method of Descartes: “I have laid down first principles and have found that the particular cases follow naturally from them.” By “spirit” Montesquieu meant “causes” from which one could derive “laws” that govern society. “Laws in their most general signification, are the necessary relations derived from the nature of things,” he wrote. Quesnay—physician to the King of France—and his followers (the French physiocrats) undertook a systematic study of the economy from which they gathered empirical evidence and derived rational principles that underlie how economies grow or shrink as a function of government policies (and from where the French term laissez faire—“leave alone”—comes). This led to the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith to compose the founding text of economic science, which everyone knows as The Wealth of Nations. Its full title, in fact, is An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. It is a scientific inquiry to discover the true nature and causes of wealth, straight out of the tradition of the scientific revolution.

WealthOfNations

So historically, we have already been using science to determine such moral values as the best way to structure a polity, an economy, a legal system, and a civil society, in the same way that physicians have developed improved medical science and epidemiologists have worked to build better public health science in order attenuate plagues, disease, and other scourges of humanity. If you agree that it is better that millions of people no longer die of yellow fever and smallpox, cholera and bronchitis, dysentery and diarrhea, consumption and tuberculosis, measles and mumps, gangrene and gastritis, and many other assaults on the human body, then you have offered your assent that the way something is (diseases such as yellow fever and smallpox kill people) means we ought to prevent it through vaccinations and other medical and public health technologies. Analogously, if you agree that millions of lives have been saved over the past couple of centuries by a reduction in violence (war, torture, homicides, etc.) due to improved understanding of causality in these areas and the application of appropriate policies based on those causes, then you might well concur that applying the methods of the social sciences to further attenuating war, crime, and violence is also something we ought to do.

Why are these science-based policies morally good? Because they lead to the survival and flourishing of sentient beings, which is a moral starting point grounded in evolutionary biology. By survival I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding, and social relations for physical and mental health. I claim that any organism subject to natural selection will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish. If it didn’t, it would not live long enough to reproduce and would no longer be subject to natural selection. By sentient I mean emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious, and therefore able to feel and to suffer.

Finally, to your point about utilitarianism and the trolley dilemma, by the “moral arc” of progress I mean an improvement in the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings. I emphasize the individual (the 1 worker on the track) over the collective (the 5 workers on the track) for four reasons: (1) Natural selection operates on individual organisms, not groups. (2) It is the individual who survives and flourishes or who suffers and dies, not the group, tribe, race, gender, state, nation, empire, or society. Individual sentient beings perceive, emote, respond, love, feel, and suffer, not populations, races, genders, groups, or nations. (3) Historically, immoral abuses have been most rampant, and body counts have run the highest, when the individual is sacrificed for the good of the group. The utilitarian calculus that it is permissible to kill 1 to save 5 is too easy to ratchet up to kill 1 million to save 5 million, and that is the basis of genocide and why utilitarianism fails in certain real-world situations (as opposed to hypothetical moral dilemmas), and therefore… (4) The rights revolutions of the past two centuries have focused almost entirely on the freedom and autonomy of individuals, not collectives—on the rights of persons, not groups. Individuals vote, not races or genders. Individuals want to be treated equally, not races. Rights protect individuals, not groups; in fact, most rights (such as those enumerated in the Bill of Rights) protect individuals from being discriminated against as members of a group, such as by race, creed, color, gender, or—soon—sexual orientation and gender preference.

Legal systems have evolved to follow this line of reasoning and historical development. Analogous to the trolley problem, if a surgeon has 1 healthy person in her waiting room and 5 patients in operating rooms each dying of an organ failure that the harvesting of the 1 will save the 5, if she were to carry out the surgeries resulting in the death of the 1 healthy person to save the 5, she would go to jail for murder. The moral arc has bent, in part, because our legal system has followed our intuition that the intentional harm or murder of an individual against their will feels wrong, and your own research confirms that most people would not push 1 man off a bridge onto the track to stop the trolley from killing 5 workers. Natural rights theory trumps utilitarianism based on my moral starting point of the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings.

As for your real-world examples, euthanasia is resolvable by natural rights theory (which I consider to be science-based): as long as the individual consents to allowing herself to die or instructs someone to initiate an assisted suicide (here videotaped consent should be mandatory to prevent abuse of the law), it is morally acceptable regardless of whether or not it leads to the greatest good for the greatest number. Incest, in part, follows natural rights theory because the incest taboo, which anthropologists have shown is a human universal, was selected for because of the genetic harm from too much inbreeding, and from modern psychological research showing that incestuous relationships between, for example, fathers and daughters, can be severely damaging to the child. Of course, if you alter the conditions such that the incestuous relationship is consensual, between distant cousins, and does no one harm, then it may be considered morally acceptable. But here the problem is that the exceptions are mostly in the realm of philosophical thought experiments designed to nudge our intuitions to come into conflict with our reasoning.
In conclusion, science and reason can and have helped us determine moral values.

Marc Hauser:

I started off my comments by noting a distinction between reason and scientific evidence. I specifically said that reason, rational discourse, etc., has been essential to moving our discussions of morality. I also noted that science has informed important aspects of how humans judge moral situations and how we act, and what can lead to universality as opposed to cross-cultural variation; the latter can be important as knowing human biases can inform policies, as Kaplow and Shavell have argued in their legal treatise comparing fairness as opposed to individual welfare discussions. My worry is that I don’t feel as though you engaged with the core part of my comment which is that scientific evidence can’t adjudicate between different moral perspectives when different moral perspectives have validity on their own. In other words, if you are a utilitarian you put more weight on consequences than means, and if you take on a deontological perspective, you see the means as more important than the consequences; you see the world through a lens of well reasoned “reasons.” So reasoning yes. But the key part of the quote from your book is that we determine that our moral “conclusions are true through empirical verification.” But evidence wouldn’t convert a utilitarian over to the dark side of deontology, and vice versa. A good counter-example would convert some, especially if it led to a slippery slope dragging in other cases. So it is not that I reject reasoning, and it is not that I reject the role of science in some cases. For example, if you can show that a vaccine saves thousands of lives-the evidence-then it should be possible to argue based on this that people ought to take the vaccine. And yet, even here, if your culture promotes a perspective of using only traditional medicine, as opposed to artificial chemicals, but you do so knowing the risks, could we mandate this as policy? But toward the end of your commentaries, when you engage in my cases, your response is couched in terms of good reasons, but not in terms of evidence from scientific observations and experiments that could adjudicate between the options. A smart open minded utilitarian could be convinced to change as a function of a good logical argument, but if you showed him evidence that, say, significantly more people consider the means over the consequences, I doubt this would have any impact. I raise this latter point, because this is precisely the response I received from many distinguished philosophers in response to my empirical work. In fact, Frances Kamm, the distinguished Harvard ethicist told me in a seminar on my work that she didn’t really care if 5 million people voiced a different judgment from her own on a particular trolley problem, because her own reasons were principled and considered in the context of a broader view of right and wrong. In brief, the evidence was irrelevant.

The challenge, in brief, is for you to point to work in either your book, or elsewhere, or even in principle, that could flip things around. This is the challenge that I posed to Sam Harris as he was writing his book, and I don’t feel that it has been addressed.

Michael Shermer:

The Moral Landscape (book cover)

I think a lot of moral thought experiments along the lines of the trolley problem, or the “lifeboat ethics” dilemmas given to students to suss out the various moral problems inherent in any ethical system, may not be ultimately resolvable through science, in the sense you are using the term to mean empirical evidence. To come at this in a slightly different manner, given the diversity of human interests and moral foundations it may be that there are, as Sam Harris articulated it in his book The Moral Landscape, “multiple peaks on the moral landscape.” For example, in my public debates with John Lott over gun control (he wants almost none and I want some), it became clear to me that there are a lot of Americans who simply don’t care how many people die from gun violence each year (tens of thousands), they cherish their freedom to own a gun over the carnage that piles up as a result. What a science-and-reason based society has done is allow us to establish a system that can be changed in response to these differing values so that there are multiple peaks from which to choose. Science may help you choose which one is best for you, and science may help society design its moral systems to be as optimal as possible for these differing peaks. 

Marc Hauser:

I think the core issue, or difference between us, boils down to this. I think your sense of science, and what it can contribute, boils down to reason, even though you explicitly stated that from reason we decide with “empirical verification.” For me the challenge has always been whether science, in terms of evidence, experiments, observations, and modeling can decide between competing moral views in the hard cases we have been discussing. I don’t think it can, and so far, you haven’t provided any cases where it has, or walked through some plausible scenarios for how it might. When philosophers get in your grill, or Sam’s, or mine and Josh Greene, it is about the strong version of the claim: science and its evidence, not the role of reason. Sam’s multiple peaks don’t help. Sure there are multiple peaks, and this is what philosophers and other great minds have considered for a long time. I don’t think that is new.  

If, as you say, it is about how individuals decide what is best for them, then we are not in the game of morality but about individual choice. If individuals within a society recognize the significance of a finding, and decide to follow its implications, then that would be different. But if I decide for myself what pieces of evidence are worth picking and what pieces I can ignore, and I base my morality on such selective picking, we won’t have a system of morality that can operate with others.  

Now, imagine that we find scientific evidence that determines, without doubt, that some animals not only feel pain, but can think about their future selves, understand what it is like for another to feel pain, and act on the basis of it. They have, in essence, some of the critical ingredients of sentience as well as moral agency (as opposed to moral patience). I understand this evidence and I decide that since these animals are like my children, I can neither support eating them nor carrying out experiments. You, on the other hand, also understand this evidence, but decide that it is irrelevant to your moral decisions because they are not humans. In essence, you decide that humans have the moral right to control other animals, including hunting them and using them, because the core issue is our well being. Someone else decides that the evidence is important, but insufficient. That for another species to count as a moral agent, they would need to understand, or at least come to understand (as in human babies) the moral issues in play. The evidence can’t decide who is morally right because there are different standards. Three peaks? If so, fine, but science isn’t going to adjudicate.

So, I guess it boils down to this for me. If the moral arc is guided by reason, as opposed to gut feelings and appeal to the supernatural, I am totally on board, and I can’t imagine a philosopher on the planet who wouldn’t be. On the other hand, if you want to take the stronger position that all aspects of the moral arc have been and will be guided by scientific evidence, of the kind that biologists, chemists, physicists, etc., collect in their daily lives, then I don’t think you have shown this, either in terms of prior work or in principle work. 

Michael Shermer:

Perhaps not all aspects of the moral arc have been bent by science. But what has happened is that in the same way that Galileo and Newton discovered physical laws and principles about the natural world that really are out there, so too have social scientists discovered moral laws and principles about human nature and society that really do exist. Just as it was inevitable that Kepler would discover that planets have elliptical orbits-given that he was making accurate astronomical measurements, and given that planets really do travel in elliptical orbits, he could not have discovered anything else-scientists studying political, economic, social, and moral subjects will discover certain things that are true in these realms. For example, that democracies are better than autocracies, that market economies are superior to command economies, that slaves don’t like being enslaved and oppressed, that torture and the death penalty do not curb crime, that burning women as witches is a fallacious idea, that Jews did not cause the Black Death, that blacks are not intellectually inferior to whites, or that women are not too weak and emotional to run companies or countries.

My view is that ever since the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment the idea that individual sentient beings have natural rights has outcompeted other ideas that place the group, tribe, nation, race, gender, or religion above the rights of the individual. These rights have expanded around the globe because individual sentient beings want them, and they want them because it is part of their nature to want them-it is instinctive-and a proper scientific understanding of human nature has revealed this fact. Knowing that, we then have a moral obligation to expand those rights where we can, and to help people whose rights are being violated.

Jonathan Haidt’s six moral foundations (described in his book The Righteous Mind) are an interesting test case because, as he argues, they are part of our nature, evolved features of our minds as social primates.

the_Righteous_Mind

  1. Liberty/oppression, related to our desire for freedom and autonomy and our resentment of bullies and oppressors who try to restrict our liberty.
  2. Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
  3. Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
  4. In-group/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group.
  5. Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundation underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
  6. Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notion that the body is a temple that can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants.

As Haidt’s data shows, liberals tend to emphasize the first three, conservatives tend to value the second three, and libertarians focus more on the first foundation over all others. I am prepared to argue that one of the drivers of moral progress as I have defined it is that the second three foundations that have been the backbone of groups, tribes, nations, and religions are being outcompeted by the first three that are the central core of the rights revolutions of the past two centuries. The reason for their success is that the worldview of Enlightenment Humanism and Classical Liberalism that embraces liberty, care, and fairness over in-group loyalty, authority, and purity is more likely to lead to the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings.

Exceptions such as ISIS, al Qaeda, and others who want to return to a 7th century Caliphate built on Sharia prove the generalization: they reject the Enlightenment values of science, reason, openness, tolerance, and individualism. I claim that these moral foundations-these truths about our moral nature-are discoverable by science, and once discovered can be used in the service of the betterment of humanity. It is in this sense that rights theory trumps utilitarian theory, at least in these cases and others I document in The Moral Arc .

By | 2017-05-18T16:04:47+00:00 April 8th, 2015|Justice, Morality, Science|32 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, and the author of The Moral Arc. His previous books include: The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Mind of the Market, How We Believe, and The Science of Good and Evil.

32 Comments

  1. Joseph Woodhouse April 8, 2015 at 6:07 am - Reply

    In this debate, I think the overriding element is awareness of the biggest possible picture. I am talking here about the astro-biological perspective, the entire history of the Universe since the Big Bang and including our modern unprecedented predicament, with seven billion people blithely destroying the habitability of their planet.

    In my view, from this perspective, Michael Shermer’s championing of science and reason is correct. For fun, you can split hairs and argue about whether you are going to push a heavy man in front of a train to save five others but I daresay, this is a moot point when a whole planet and civilization is at stake. Our only hope is if mankind as a collective seriously takes up the agenda that Michael Shermer reveals, as our moral compass, science and reason, in “The Moral Arc”.

  2. John La G April 8, 2015 at 6:08 am - Reply

    Our problem in the West is dualistic, trying to understand morality in terms of observer and observed. But moral reality, in the sense of love, compassion, and empathy, is not fulfilled as simply an idea in a textbook, or an argument of philosophy. We can describe morality ad infinitum, but until it is LIVED and integrated with one’s very essence and being, it is not actual. The moral arc is who we ARE as human beings, not simply a set of beliefs or soft-scientific ideas. The only way to understand morality is to embody a life of love, empathy, and compassion. Authentic morality is the unification of observer and observed, while science would point to Bohr, Heisenberg, and Planck, and say … impossible.

    • Joseph Woodhouse April 8, 2015 at 8:13 am - Reply

      That embodied life of love, empathy and compassion must be modulated by a keen awareness of the Universe as it actually is. The essential context is humans in the Universe. Science and reason reveal the big picture and this is the essential foundation on which we can derive a workable morality. You can’t have love, empathy and compassion in sentient creatures if you do not have a habitable planet for them to live on.

      • John La G April 8, 2015 at 8:45 am - Reply

        Creating and sustaining a “healthy planet” is less a moral question, and more a question of politics. The 100 year extraction and use of fossil fuels caused rapid population growth (1B to 7B, soon 9B) with associated environmental degradation. Few animals soil their own nest to the point of inhabitability, but humans have. Survival is primal. It’s level 1 and 2 of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Moral reasoning starts at level 5.

        Yes, I suppose you could call politics a reflection of popular morality, but I suggest that’s not a strong starting point for a conversation on the “bridge” between science and philosophical-religious morality. Nevertheless, I agree with you — we’re killing our commons. But it doesn’t take moral philosophy to know this. Saving the planet requires collective (political) courage over rampant greed. Historically, greed always wins, until it ultimately collapses its own system.

        Your conversation involves the tension between Maslow 1 and 5. Shermer’s conversation starts deep into Maslow 5 and continues upward. Both conversations are important.

        • Joseph Woodhouse April 8, 2015 at 9:23 am - Reply

          Thanks John for a well considered reply. The title of the book, “The Moral Arc” and I would argue that it is an all encompassing arc… Maslow’s definitions may in fact be too narrow and a bit inverted, though extremely useful. The all encompassing arc, the guiding light and foundation of these moral considerations, must include a clear and lucid modeling of the human being in the Universe, as it really is.

          From this point of view, so called moral behaviour, based on false beliefs as to the nature of Reality, turns into immoral behavior. Clear, lucid, well modulated, agile and big picture human awareness of the Universe as it really is with humans symbiotically placed within that picture, is the well spring of all moral behaviour and we don’t get that picture without science and reason.

      • John La G April 9, 2015 at 11:31 am - Reply

        And, FWIW, when a really good scientist thinks long and hard enough about morality, they sometimes come to the conclusion that “love” (or whatever word we use to describe it) is actually the core structural identity of creation — that Love is built in to the very fabric of the universe. Case in point, Cal Tech Feynman Chair Emeritus, Kip Thorne. His recent screen play of the movie “Interstellar” puts LOVE at the very center of quantum reality. How did he come to this conclusion? You’ll need to ask him :-)

        There are scores of other leading scientists whose social writings reflect this very same idea. I could offer a list if anyone’s interested. Of course, nobody can “prove” this thesis via the “scientific method,” for reasons I discussed earlier — namely, the difference between dualism (observer and observed separated) and non-dualism (observer and observed unified). That may be Shermer’s downfall here. Just like you can’t do quantum physics with Newtonian equations, you can’t explore a non-dualistic reality with dualistic vehicles.

  3. Adrian April 8, 2015 at 7:38 am - Reply

    Michael, I love some points that you make in your writings but disagree with others. This is one of the latter. You say: “If you agree that it is better that millions of people no longer die of yellow fever and smallpox [and many others]… means weought to prevent it through vaccinations and other medical and public health technologies.” You are “cheating” when you try to build the bridge between “is” and “ought.” You artificailly build the bridge in your assumption and then you claim in your conclusion that you crossed it. Your first assumption is that it is *better* to save people than to let them die. That’s already an ethical statement, it’s already an unwarranted jump from “is” to “ought.” You wuold need to prove using ‘science and reason’ why it is better to save people rather than let natural selection run its course and cull the population. Without such a proof you made no progress in proving your thesis but just a circular argument. Your “unproved” answer that it’s better to save the people (as opposed to, let’s say, let natural selection evolve humans to overcome such deseases, for example malaria and sickle cell or else make room for another species) – piggybacks religiuos ethics.

    You say “Why are these science-based policies morally good? Because they lead to the survival and flourishing of sentient beings, which is a moral starting point grounded in evolutionary biology.” You failed to make the connection here. It seems you think that “survival of the fittest” principle supports this. However, as Darwin points out, there is much more culling than survival. Survival of the fittest wouldn’t make sense without the culling of the unfit. You assume that quantity (saving of the people) is *better* than quality (when natural selection lets only the best and fittest to survive) – may I remind you that eugenics was scientifically supported? You have no grounds for this assumption and you cannot possibly have any grounds (if you think you do search further and you’ll just find other assumptions).

    Going further, even if it was “supported” by evolutionary biology that support would not be of a moral nature unless you prove that the survival of the fittest is moral. Otherwise, the survival of the fittest is just what “is” and not necessarily what “ought to be” – and therefore the bridge between “is” and “ought” is not crossed. One may point out that there are good reasons for which Dawkins called one of his books “The Selfish Gene” and although it may lead to what might be called as altruism, it is after all inescapably selfish, far from what “ought to be.”

    Going even further, evolutionary biology support you are referring to fails in another way. One question that needs to be answered is “the survival of who or what?” The survival of the all life? Most environmentalists would say yes but evolution doesn’t support that. It necessarily requires species and sub-species to be culled for the advancement of the better fitted ones. The survival of my own bigger taxon? It may very well be that closely related species compete for the same resources (food, space, etc.) and often evolution entails a competition between them instead of a cooperation of a larger taxon. Then further, is it the species, the group, the extended or close family, the individual, the individual gene (as Dawkins says in his book)? Depending on what your answer is to “the survival of what?” you often end up with different actions as being “moral” and “imoral.” Depending to where you draw the line and define “one’s own” (is it everybody? is it my kind? is it my family?) you will have different “moralities” as there is often a conflict of interests between a smaller and larger grouping. What’s best for the group may not be the best for me or my family. Even in evolutionary biology, group evolution has not been an easy subject. The “morality” you are deriving from evolutionary biology would be something like this: 1) you ought to protect and save “your own” (or even some “better” group) and 2) it is acceptable to sacrifice those who are not your own. One can define “one’s own” in different ways and arrive to different moralities and how could science decide which definition is better. One could define “one’s own” as the healty individuals with a good gene pool and promote eugenics. The same one might find the selective breeding of dogs (which significantly deteriorates gene quality and introduces many genetic deceases for the sake of aesthetics and utilitarism) as imoral while a dog enthusias may disagree while both could adamantly claim they love dogs. Therefore when you state that morality can be determined by science (plus reason) and give evolutionary biology as support – this support fails in multiple ways.

    When you say something is “better” there are 2 possibilities – either it is qualified (better *for* something, not better for something else) or unqualified or self-qualified (it just is). A qualified judgement on “better” (let’s call it better-judgement) derives its morality or value (this is not restricted to moral values) from what it leads to. For example “medicines are good (or better than lack thereof) because they save lives.” This only pushes the moral or value question one step further. Why is “saving lives” better than all the alternatives? You either run into an infinite better-because–better-because series or you come to an unqualified moral statement that you can only accept can never “prove.” The religious would say it is God given or represents God’s character. You would just have to say that it just is and have no clue why.

    Any “first” statement about “better” (or value in general) is like a “first cause” – you can go no further to answer a further ‘why?’ question. It is like the “first” words in a dictionary that you cannot define without running into circular definition (such as “to be” defined as “to exist” which is defiend as “to be”). They are like the origin on an axis in math – once you have the origin and a measurement unit you can tell where each point is but you cannot “prove” or “deduce” the origin from something prior. See also Godel’s theorem. Such “originating entities” “just are” – say “thanks” that they do and move on, it’s pointless to try to prove them or deduce them.

    In conclusion, science did not discover the moral foundations (as you claim) – you assumed them without realizing. You cannot prove that your morality is better than that of ISIS without making further unprovable assumptions. You assumed what is (natural selection) to be the foundation of what ought to be (which fails per Hume’s criticism). You preferentially selected the “survival” part and disregarded the “culling” part of natural selection – and by doing this you automatically smuggled in moral assumptions. You failed to prove why the “survival” (which you take as supporing your morality) is better than the “culling” (which doesn’t support your morality). You ignored that the survival can be at differen levels of “one’s own” which leads to different moralities and you failed to prove which definition of “one’s own” is better and more moral. The only solution is to admit that some moral principles just are – same as you admit that some words in the dictionary cannot be properly defined (without avoiding circular definition) but must be admited to be given.

    • Joseph Woodhouse April 8, 2015 at 8:05 am - Reply

      To simplify, Adrian, and looking at the biggest possible picture, any set of moral principles that lead us to a healthy and habitable biosphere on planet Earth would be useful. You can nitpick and intellectually sift through the fine print, but a healthy habitable biosphere for a reasonable human population is the obvious goal… how could it be otherwise? Science and reason are essential to get us there and provide the guiding light, no doubt about it. To me, the message that Michael conveys is clear and incredibly essential as we confront our current human dilemma on a planetary scale.

      • Adrian April 9, 2015 at 7:47 am - Reply

        Joseph, you seem to think that I get lost in the details while you “simplify” by looking at the “biggest possible picture” and therefore can dismiss what would be my minor details. No, “a healthy and habitable biosphere on planet Earth” is not the “biggest possible picture” – it is “possible” to include the whole universe in the picture not just earth and to include inanimate matter not just biological life. You make a moral decision to have preferential treatment for the Earth and, more specifically, for biological life on earth. Even more specifically, for humans on Earth. However, you don’t give any reason for why we have a moral duty to Earth and why we don’t have the same duty to other parts of the universe. You provide no reason why you have a duty to biological life and Humans in particular and not the same duty to the rest (for example to preserve chemical compounds which are in danger of being used up and becoming “extinct” or to non-humans). Further you probably condone the killing of plants and maybe even animals for your own good and the good of your own species. This means that your simplification is an oversimplification. There is not set of parameters that is optimal for all species and all biological life or for all humanity. Making the Earth ore habitable for one species means making it less habitable for another species. Emphasizing environmentalism may make the Earth less habitable for those who make a living in the oil industry for example. When you say “reasonable human population” you need to decide what happens if the Earth becomes overpopulated – who gets to live? who gets to be allowed to have children? are the boys kept and girls not? You oversimplified view hides a lot of moral decisions which are not proved – scientifically or otherwise. Even if there was a one-hat-fits-all habitability of the Earth you still assume that life is better than death and than inanimate matter. You say: “a healthy habitable biosphere for a reasonable human population is the obvious goal… how could it be otherwise?” I’m not saying that life isn’t better than death or inanimate matter or that it shouldn’t be a main goal – few people if any would say it’s otherwise. But the fact that something is so does not prove why it’s so. My reason for questioning the morality of upholding life is not to prove that death should be upholded instead but to prove that it is not provable. You can only assume it, take it as given but you cannot prove that it should be that way and no amount of science (or reasoning) will achieve that.

        Yes, once you accept that assumption, science can help to determine the best way to go about it but science cannot prove why that goal is better than other goals. For example, there are some believing that civilization should be largely destroyed and “rebooted.” Some believe in eugenics and Nietzsche’s superman. Some believe in other kinds of cleansings that involve killing. Some believe in occupying other countries by war. Some believe that unborn children can be killed. Any attempt to prove the superiority of a pro-life morality over a pro-death morality only embeds further assumptions. Again, you either accept that such a morality is given or that morality is arbitrary.

        You made a good choice of words when you said “useful” in “any set of moral principles that lead us to a healthy and habitable biosphere on planet Earth would be useful.” But “useful” is vastly different than “moral” and nothing in this statement makes those principles either moral or immoral – it just makes them useful for a specific goal. You can use science and reasoning to say X is useful for or leads to Y but you need to assume (or “agree” as Michael put it) that Y is moral in the first place. You are just saying (like Michael) that X is moral because it’s useful for a moral goal, Y (with which most people “agree”). But does nothing to elucidate the ultimate source of morality. Equating morality with usefulness or consensus or anything else does not solve the problem. One can easily give you examples where useful or agreed upon (at some point) are immoral. Such redefinitions of morality are ultimately arbitrary. You invariably make arbitrary assumptions when it comes to the question “useful for who?” “who is ‘my own’?” (as I discussed earlier).

        You say “Science and reason are essential to get us there and provide the guiding light, no doubt about it.” I agree with you (and Michael) that science and reason can help analyze and apply morality. But they can’t shed light and answer the ultimate “why”? Any attempt of science to do that would ruin morality and make it arbitrary. “Reason” could say/argue that it is God given or integral part of a First-cause but it would just shift the question because it couldn’t answer why such a First-cause exists in the first place. It ultimately leads to an unanswerable question.

        The problem underlying this discussion on morality is a problem that applies to the larger question of value and meaning (not just moral value). Let me ask you a question: why is the way that the matter is arranged in your brain better than the way matter is arranged in a rock on the side of the road? There is no answer that you could ever come up with that can avoid a vicious circle here – every answer that you would give would automatically assume that you can trust your brain and reasoning and therefore the matter in it it’s better than the matter in a rock. Or the matter in a live frog vs. the matter in the same frog after 10 minutes of staying in a turned-on blender? I don’t deny that you can give me an answer but I deny that you can give me an ultimate answer. For every answer you give one can ask further “so what? why is that better than the alternatives?” It may not be easy to see my point because the concept of value and better-ness is deeply rooted at the base of our paradigms which makes questioning it very difficult. But probably your answer is something along the line of “survival” which goes back to the same basic assumption about life – that life is *better* than non-life; it has more *value* than non-life.

        The Earth or the universe could have looked very differently. Why is one arrangement of matter (for example the current one) better than another (alternative arrangement)? Why is the way that life is arranged on Earth in living things and cars and buildings better than it is on Mars for example? Yes, you could say about the arrangement of matter on earth being improbable, you could throw in entropy but you couldn’t answer why an improbable even is better than a probable one, why low entropy better than higher entropy, why higher degrees of freedom better than lower ones, why change is better than stasis, why life better than death (or all of these reversed). The point is you cannot make a qualitative distinction between two random/arbitrary states (arrangements) unless you have an independent and non-arbitrary standard to compare them to. An “A” made by my 4 years old daughter is *better* than something my 2 year old son scribbles because there is an independent alphabet and my daughter’s writing is a match to it. But if the standard/criterion is contingent as well then the value is doomed to be arbitrary. If there is no *given* standard, independent of this contingent universe then all value and morality is arbitrary. If that is unacceptable then there must be a non-contingent standard.

        • Joseph Woodhouse April 9, 2015 at 3:29 pm - Reply

          Hey Adrian, You are quite the reasoner and philosopher. I think the following quote from your post sums up your argument.

          “If there is no *given* standard, independent of this contingent universe then all value and morality is arbitrary. If that is unacceptable then there must be a non-contingent standard.”

          Now this saying could be equally applied to your view of reality. Have you concluded there is a non-contingent standard and if so, pray tell, what is it?

          • Adrian April 15, 2015 at 11:29 am

            Can be equally applied to my view of reality?? That WAS my view! That is, that a non-arbitrary morality requires a non-contingent standard. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by your statement. Are you dropping the current subject of morality (without objecting to my statements) and trying to guess what my view is outside of the strict discussion on morality we had but on to the realms of philosophy and theology?

            That is fine but I’d like to know if your “pray tell, what is it?” is an honest inquiry with the intention to find out? It doesn’t sound like that is the case. It seems there is no real interest in finding out but rather in changing the subject to one where, unlike morality, you think you can score some points. One that you already know with little room to find out. Your question sounds full of irony, ready to jump at my first answer. It sounds like a wolf saying: “OK, I can’t win at meekness, now don’t tell me there is also a most tender sheep ever – if so, let it come out now.” I apologize if I’m mistaken but that’s my honest impression.

            Here’s what I have to say before such a discussion even starts:

            1) The role of bias and preconceptions cannot be overstated (of course, for any side of a debate). I dare to say that one never accepts something primarily because it’s logical but always because it fits one’s preexisting paradigm. Only within a paradigm something can make sense or not (and it will or won’t depending on the paradigm). It’s one’s grand paradigm that interprets and gives meaning to data and makes sense out of it. If some new information doesn’t fit one’s paradigm it won’t make sense, it will be unintelligible and thus couldn’t be properly accepted. The reason that 2 different poeple looking at the same data will come to very different conclusions is not because one is logical and the other is not. They just have different paradigms. The most can happen is that some new information could point out a contradiction within the paradigm and fit only a part of one’s paradigm and lead to a break in the paradigm. If the part that it fits is more fundamental then the fact will be accepted and the contradicting part will be dropped. The more fundamental the part do be dropped is the harder it is to do it. We are what we think and how we think – that’s what makes us who we are and giving up a fundamental part of is is like cutting out one’s own hand. Also, one’s paradigm includes not only facts but also priorities, preferences, values, etc. If one is not honest and self-critical (but only opponent-critical) there is no much value in a debate or dialog. You can often find statements that the opponent’s view just doesn’t may any sense. This is just an admission that one cannot escape one’s own paradigm to look at things from a different perspective. It’s rather likely that one’s opponent’s view will not make sense in one’s paradigm. But any view will make sense given the proper paradigm and set of assumptions.

            2) There is no view on any major/fundamental subject (be it morality or something else) that is perfect and objection free. Yes, we all strive for consistency but if one is honest will one will admit that there are points where the opponent’s objections make more sense than one’s defense. It’s hard to accept such dissonance (as I pointed above) and one will try to deny it (by claiming, for example, as Michael Shermer did, that there is an objective base for morality in science) or hide or ignore it. By being honest and admitting that one doesn’t necessarily need to give up his position. It only means that one should be more self critical and less dogmatic – which makes in the end for a better dialog. So from the start you can expect there are going to be some problems with your view and with your opponent’s view. It’s not enough that you are able to bring up valid objections against your opponent’s view, you should also be able to offer a better alternative. Which one is a better, however is subjective. You could say that one should look for the most consistent one, one that explains the most, etc. but again that is subjective as one’s paradigm will preferentially hide facts and relationships or diminish/ignore them or, on the contrary, will blow them up in one’s attention.

            Going back to your question: “What is it?” I know you want to jump to a precise answer (if only to attack it) but the most my reasoning above leads to is that, given than an arbitrary morality is unacceptable (and I’ll respond separately to Franz on this) there must be a non-contingent morality (or moral law or value). Do you need to know more precise that that? Well, it takes more than a morality discussion to get more precise. Based on free time, I’d be happy to discuss this further but the discussion will depart from morality. I’m not sure that here (under morality) is the place to discuss that and the format (comments to comments) is the best way to do it. But the first question would be if such an non-contingent morality could or not be independent of a mind or a sentient being.

          • Joseph Woodhouse April 15, 2015 at 2:25 pm

            Adrian, My main interest is sharing aware states to see what others have found out about the awareness phenomenologiical state space… your writing is pretty explicit as far as where you are coming from. I am afraid I wouldn’t be much of a debate sparring partner. Otherwise, I am sure you will work it all out… you are certainly a serious thinker and debater and clearly have some kind of underlying agenda which you prefer not to discuss and I am good with that. Best wishes!

    • Adrian April 8, 2015 at 5:13 pm - Reply

      An additional comment regarding your statement: “These rights have expanded around the globe because individual sentient beings want them, and they want them because it is part of their nature to want them-it is instinctive-and a proper scientific understanding of human nature has revealed this fact. Knowing that, we then have a moral obligation to expand those rights where we can, and to help people whose rights are being violated.

      1) Well, this doesn’t follow. Even if wanting some natural rights is instinctive and even if science confirmed that – it doesn’t prove that’s how it should be but it would just prove how it is. The gap between “is” and “ought” is still not crossed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is%E2%80%93ought_problem and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-question_argument).

      2) On the other hand, there are universal instincts that, by themselves, easily could lead to actions that are considered immoral by most. So, which instincts do you choose for morality? The latest ones with most consensus?

      3) Your implied assumption is that evolution can be applied to ideas (or “memes”) and the latest and most spread idea on morality must be the most moral one. The fact proved by history that some ideas come in vogue cyclically disproves this assumption of always evolution or progress towards a better morality (which reminds me of the communist teaching that I got in school about the inevitable and irreversible progress from capitalism to socialism to communism). You could say that these instincts have the most consensus today but couldn’t say that they are the most moral ones.

      4) Individual vs. group: You say “individual sentient beings have natural rights has outcompeted other ideas that place the group, tribe, nation, race, gender, or religion above the rights of the individual.” This idea that it’s the individual not the group is not so clear cut as you seem to think. The individual doesn’t live in isolation. I bet you treat your individual friends differently than you individual foes. One doesn’t treat the individuals in his own family differently than the rest or one’s competition differently than one’s helpers. Most governments do not want individuals from other poorer countries to immigrate and work for less and take away jobs of the citizens and take measures against that. The emphasis on the individual in the absence of defining the individual’s group or groups (one’s own) is misguided. It’s not just myself but it’s my family, my gender, my race, my nationality, my political party, my religion, my side, my team, my/our country, my/our planet, etc. You yourself implicitly define a preferred group as “those sentient.” Those outside the group can be killed and eaten but those inside the group cannot. You failed to prove (scientifically or by reason) why this definition of one’s group is better (or, more moral) than others such as defining the group as those that feel pain (as animal activists do) or one’s family (as almost everybody does). It is universally accepted (so, based on your statements it would be a “morally evolved idea”) that one owes more to one’s own than to “strangers” or “outsiders.” A strict emphasis on the individual excludes that and the unanswered questions which generally spread and accepted ideas are “morally evolved/outcompeting” and “right” and which not. If, on the other hand, you allow the preferential treatment of one’s own then the unanswered (and scientifically unanswereable) question is which groupings are right and which are wrong?

      5) Another problem with your “sentient” grouping is this: if you do a wrong action to an animal that is not aware it’s being wronged – does that make it right? Many would say that cheating someone that doesn’t know that he’s been cheated it’s still wrong. Then another problem: if an individual is not sentient then can you do anything to it? Is it OK to bring a species to extinction? Is it OK to abort an unborn baby or kill a recently born baby? Is it OK to harm future generations that don’t exist yet? Being sentient doesn’t solve the morality riddle. It works just because it fits one of the many groupings we operate on as individuals (one sentient is one like us, our own group). But it provides no scientific and reasonable answer why one should favor one criteria of grouping over another and why showing favoritism to one’s own group is morally better than showing favoritism to the outsiders in the first place. Science can attest and confirm that individuals show preference for their own group (the “is”) but couldn’t ultimately prove that it should be that way (the “ought”).

      6) Even if science and reason would point to some morality that doesn’t necessarily prove that you are not pointing out the obvious – something that was *given* that one would just know without any science or much reasoning about. As a matter of fact the six moral foundations that Haidt “recently” discovered have been taught by religion for a long time without involving any science or even much philosophy.

      Either there are at least some absolute, given, unprovable and un-deducible moral values or morality becomes meaningless as any moral statement becomes arbitrary. It may be practical that one acts within what happens to be socially acceptable at that time and place and within government enforceable rules but that is irrespective of what one believes about morality and it only applies if one fancies practicality. If one fancies rebellion or disdains being ordinary and unremarkable, one might choose to act in discordance with the social or governmental norms. In the end proving your point hinges on someone agreeing with your premise/assumption. You say: “If you agree that it is better that millions of people no longer die … if you agree that millions of lives have been saved…” Yes, science and reasoning can prove that X leads to Y, for example, vaccination saves lives. Savings lives may very well be obviously moral, the “ought-to” thing to do but you cannot prove that by science or reasoning – if you think you can, you haven’t done it so far and I challenge you to take a shot at it in a next post. Yes, it’s easy to get people to agree that saving lives is the moral “ought-to” – few would disagree as that appears obvious. After one agrees it’s easy to use science and reason to determine how to go about it and save lives. But the morality of saving lives being obvious is really independent of science and reason. Since it’s obvious, you take it for granted but being obvious does not prove that it’s scientifically provable or logically deducible. Concepts like “better” and “right vs. wrong” are so entrenched in our minds that it’s extremely hard to question them altogether (to question an ultimate better/good/right). If we do, a lot of our views fall out of place. But how did we come to know such moral statements (like saving lives is good)? Not by science and reason! And you cannot deduce them using science and reason (as any deduction would require one more assumption and would take you one step further: X is good because it leads to Y but why is Y good? because it leads to Z and why is Z good? and so on). You can only say that either 1) some ultimate moral values just exist or 2) morality is meaningless/arbitrary. If 1) is true then either 1a) there is no explanation why they exist – they just are or 1b) they are God given or God describing (and then there is no explanation why God exists, he just is). Now none of these are acceptable to you so you make up a morality story that helps you avoid any of these conclusions and give you intellectual comfort. It fits with your paradigm and its emphasis on science so that science plays a significant role in your morality story. You have some great skepticism writing on how mind works. You should read them to yourself and try to apply them to yourself (which may be hard to do as they are meant to criticize the others). It is not only the mind of those supporting pseudoscience for example that is making up stories and believe what it wants and is blinded to what it doesn’t want and doesn’t fit its paradigm. That happens to the mind of the best scientists as well (an example is Einstein’s opposition to quantum mechanics) and neither you or me are spared. This is why it’s essential to be self critical and not be quick to dismiss opponents’ criticism.

    • Adrian April 9, 2015 at 10:10 am - Reply

      [This is a repost as my initial post has not posted yet, maybe because of 2 wikipedia URLs that I now removed.]

      An additional comment regarding your (Michael’s) statement: “These rights have expanded around the globe because individual sentient beings want them, and they want them because it is part of their nature to want them-it is instinctive-and a proper scientific understanding of human nature has revealed this fact. Knowing that, we then have a moral obligation to expand those rights where we can, and to help people whose rights are being violated.

      1) Well, this doesn’t follow. Even if wanting some natural rights is instinctive and even if science confirmed that – it doesn’t prove that’s how it should be but it would just prove how it is. The gap between “is” and “ought” is still not crossed (see Hume’s “Is–ought problem”).

      2) On the other hand, there are universal instincts that, by themselves, easily could lead to actions that are considered immoral by most. So, which instincts do you choose for morality? The latest ones with most consensus?

      3) Your implied assumption is that evolution can be applied to ideas (or “memes”) and the latest and most spread idea on morality must be the most moral one. The fact proved by history that some ideas come in vogue cyclically disproves this assumption of always evolution or progress towards a better morality (which reminds me of the communist teaching that I got in school about the inevitable and irreversible progress from capitalism to socialism to communism). You could say that these instincts have the most consensus today but couldn’t say that they are the most moral ones.

      4) Individual vs. group: You say “individual sentient beings have natural rights has outcompeted other ideas that place the group, tribe, nation, race, gender, or religion above the rights of the individual.” This idea that it’s the individual not the group is not so clear cut as you seem to think. The individual doesn’t live in isolation. I bet you treat your individual friends differently than you individual foes. One doesn’t treat the individuals in his own family differently than the rest or one’s competition differently than one’s helpers. Most governments do not want individuals from other poorer countries to immigrate and work for less and take away jobs of the citizens and take measures against that. The emphasis on the individual in the absence of defining the individual’s group or groups (one’s own) is misguided. It’s not just myself but it’s my family, my gender, my race, my nationality, my political party, my religion, my side, my team, my/our country, my/our planet, etc. You yourself implicitly define a preferred group as “those sentient.” Those outside the group can be killed and eaten but those inside the group cannot. You failed to prove (scientifically or by reason) why this definition of one’s group is better (or, more moral) than others such as defining the group as those that feel pain (as animal activists do) or one’s family (as almost everybody does). It is universally accepted (so, based on your statements it would be a “morally evolved idea”) that one owes more to one’s own than to “strangers” or “outsiders.” A strict emphasis on the individual excludes that and the unanswered questions which generally spread and accepted ideas are “morally evolved/outcompeting” and “right” and which not. If, on the other hand, you allow the preferential treatment of one’s own then the unanswered (and scientifically unanswereable) question is which groupings are right and which are wrong?

      5) Another problem with your “sentient” grouping is this: if you do a wrong action to an animal that is not aware it’s being wronged – does that make it right? Many would say that cheating someone that doesn’t know that he’s been cheated it’s still wrong. Then another problem: if an individual is not sentient then can you do anything to it? Is it OK to bring a species to extinction? Is it OK to abort an unborn baby or kill a recently born baby? Is it OK to harm future generations that don’t exist yet? Being sentient doesn’t solve the morality riddle. It works just because it fits one of the many groupings we operate on as individuals (one sentient is one like us, our own group). But it provides no scientific and reasonable answer why one should favor one criteria of grouping over another and why showing favoritism to one’s own group is morally better than showing favoritism to the outsiders in the first place. Science can attest and confirm that individuals show preference for their own group (the “is”) but couldn’t ultimately prove that it should be that way (the “ought”).

      6) Even if science and reason would point to some morality that doesn’t necessarily prove that you are not pointing out the obvious – something that was *given* that one would just know without any science or much reasoning about. As a matter of fact the six moral foundations that Haidt “recently” discovered have been taught by religion for a long time without involving any science or even much philosophy.

      Either there are at least some absolute, given, unprovable and un-deducible moral values or morality becomes meaningless as any moral statement becomes arbitrary. It may be practical that one acts within what happens to be socially acceptable at that time and place and within government enforceable rules but that is irrespective of what one believes about morality and it only applies if one fancies practicality. If one fancies rebellion or disdains being ordinary and unremarkable, one might choose to act in discordance with the social or governmental norms. In the end proving your point hinges on someone agreeing with your premise/assumption. You say: “If you agree that it is better that millions of people no longer die … if you agree that millions of lives have been saved…” Yes, science and reasoning can prove that X leads to Y, for example, vaccination saves lives. Savings lives may very well be obviously moral, the “ought-to” thing to do but you cannot prove that by science or reasoning – if you think you can, you haven’t done it so far and I challenge you to take a shot at it in a next post. Yes, it’s easy to get people to agree that saving lives is the moral “ought-to” – few would disagree as that appears obvious. After one agrees it’s easy to use science and reason to determine how to go about it and save lives. But the morality of saving lives being obvious is really independent of science and reason. Since it’s obvious, you take it for granted but being obvious does not prove that it’s scientifically provable or logically deducible. Concepts like “better” and “right vs. wrong” are so entrenched in our minds that it’s extremely hard to question them altogether (to question an ultimate better/good/right). If we do, a lot of our views fall out of place. But how did we come to know such moral statements (like saving lives is good)? Not by science and reason! And you cannot deduce them using science and reason (as any deduction would require one more assumption and would take you one step further: X is good because it leads to Y but why is Y good? because it leads to Z and why is Z good? and so on). You can only say that either 1) some ultimate moral values just exist or 2) morality is meaningless/arbitrary. If 1) is true then either 1a) there is no explanation why they exist – they just are or 1b) they are God given or God describing (and then there is no explanation why God exists, he just is). Now none of these are acceptable to you so you make up a morality story that helps you avoid any of these conclusions and give you intellectual comfort. It fits with your paradigm and its emphasis on science so that science plays a significant role in your morality story. You have some great skepticism writing on how mind works. You should read them to yourself and try to apply them to yourself (which may be hard to do as they are meant to criticize the others). It is not only the mind of those supporting pseudoscience for example that is making up stories and believe what it wants and is blinded to what it doesn’t want and doesn’t fit its paradigm. That happens to the mind of the best scientists as well (an example is Einstein’s opposition to quantum mechanics) and neither you or me are spared. This is why it’s essential to be self critical and not be quick to dismiss opponents’ criticism.

  4. tom April 8, 2015 at 11:15 am - Reply

    An interesting thought that occurs to me on reading this article and the very articulate comment from Adrian is that trying to use science to define objective morality is only possible if you pull back to a universally objective perspective. The smallest objective in this lens is the Earth itself. So we create rules that benefit the Earth to benefit ourselves. This makes national level governments irrelevant and necessitates a one world body to enforce the veneration of nature as our sole supplicator. This is where using science and reason to define objective moral behavior can only lead: to religion.

    • Adrian April 16, 2015 at 2:30 pm - Reply

      Yes, Tom. Whatever is our supreme idea or sub-paradigm under we subdue all the other sub-paradigms (if a conflict arises) – be it God, nature, science, etc. – the upholding of that idea becomes a form of worship and a form of religion. But no, science cannot provide any “universally objective perspective”. I’ve explained that (as Michael Shermer does) it must first assume objectivity in order to come up with an objectivity. And it cannot explain why the earth or any other objective or goal is better than any other. The logical conclusion is an arbitrary morality (which is an absolute lack of morality in the end). But nobody goes that far in pursuing a logical conclusion and the position you describe (global, world government body for the benefit of the Earth) is still further down the line of consistency than most people would go. So you were right in that sense but there is still dissonance/inconsistency in the end (as I said and explained, a science based morality is an oxymoron).

  5. Franz Kiekeben April 10, 2015 at 7:30 am - Reply

    Interesting discussion. In my opinion, attempts to derive the correct ethics from science fail not just because one cannot derive morals from scientific data (as Hauser maintains) or even because one cannot derive morals from any non-moral facts (Hume’s is-ought guillotine, explained above by Adrian), but because there are no moral facts, period. And I think people attempt to ground morality in things like science because that idea – the subjectivity of values – scares them. They assume subjectivism is or at least leads to nihilism.

    A recent post on my blog (at franzkiekeben(dot)com) briefly addresses this question, so I’ll quote part of it here:

    “But the fact is that there is a third alternative between, on the one hand, believing in objective values and, on the other, holding that nothing can be regarded as good or bad… If I don’t believe in objective evil – because I don’t believe in objective values – it does not follow that I don’t regard anything as evil, nor that I should stop complaining when something that I regard as evil is done. Obviously, if I believe that values are subjective, I still believe in values – namely, subjective ones!

    “I have moral views which say that (for instance) torturing sentient beings for fun is always wrong. I may not believe that there is a fact, discoverable by science or by philosophical analysis, that corresponds to the statement “torturing sentient beings for fun is always wrong,” but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t oppose such an action. In fact, I would oppose it with every fiber of my being. And I would certainly call it evil.

    “Nor is this merely my subjective opinion. There is actually a great deal of intersubjective agreement on such issues. The vast majority of us are opposed to murder and rape, for example. It’s this kind of intersubjective agreement that allows us as individuals to intelligibly communicate with one another regarding moral questions.”

    (A much longer discussion of this will be in my forthcoming book, The Truth about God.)

    I also suspect that the belief that one’s morality is factual (whether because it is based on one’s “true” religious beliefs, or supposedly grounded in science, or what have you) makes it much more difficult for someone to re-assess some view. (This might be an interesting scientific question for someone like Hauser to investigate…) And that kind of intransigence can lead to serious problems. Proponents of religious morality often end up defending things most of us nowadays find horrible (e.g., William Lane Craig justifying the Israelites’ slaughter of children in conquered tribes) and
    sometimes proponents of “scientific” morality also reach conclusions that they would never otherwise find reasonable (e.g., Sam Harris claiming that it might be a good thing in certain circumstances for the entire human race to be exterminated – see Moral Landscape, p. 211). I’m glad that Shermer’s ethical views are the same as mine and that his conclusions therefore – in my subjective opinion! – are the right ones.

    • Adrian April 15, 2015 at 2:30 pm - Reply

      Franz, I like your post (even though I believe your final conclusion is wrong). It happens but it’s rare that one goes to such extreme in pursuing the logical implications of an idea (like you do). You say: “I think people attempt to ground morality in things like science because that idea – the subjectivity of values – scares them. They assume subjectivism is or at least leads to nihilism.” You call it fear (“scare”) but it’s ultimately a cognitive dissonance. A compartment (using the terminology in the latest eskeptic dot com newsletter – comments on “Critical Thinking” and about “compartmentalization” where I made some comments on this) of Michael’s paradigm says science is sufficient for (almost) everything and another compartment says subjectivism leads to unacceptable nihilism. That creates a cognitive dissonance which Michael tried to resolve in his book and article by building a bridge between science and morality while ignoring and hiding the fact that this bridge is built on the pillars of an objective morality (such as religious morality). You had the honesty (or self-criticism) to face this and admit that it doesn’t solve the cognitive dissonance (as I explained, he assumes objective morality even before he gets to science). However, you just pushed the cognitive dissonance one step further. While you (unlike Michael Shermer) admit that science cannot provide an objective morality, the dissonance appears at another level. While Michael’s dissonance is between his all-sufficient-science compartment and his there-must-be-objective-morality compartment (that he tries to resolve by making up an objective science-based morality) your dissonance is between your all-sufficient-science compartment (or something similar) and your there-must-not-be-nihilism compartment. Both are strong beliefs you hold and in order to resolve the conflict you imagine a subjective morality that doesn’t lead to nihilism.

      In a way, you are correct, it doesn’t lead to nihilism. It leads to something even worse (but again, if you were correct and there is no objective values then terms like “worse” or “better” wouldn’t make sense anymore). There is no name for the ultimate end-result of a subjective morality (or, more generally, value system) because nobody holds it and nobody could ever hold it. One couldn’t live with that (other than biologically) – but one couldn’t live intellectually, socially, emotionally, etc. Love, humor, goals would all be meaningless. One couldn’t properly hold to nihilism because eve that belief in nihilism is meaningless. One couldn’t even commit suicide because one must asses that life is not worth living in order to commit suicide. That an assessment would require that “worth” has any meaning.

      While you “follow the reasoning where it leads” further than Michael you still stop at nihilism – which is where your cognitive dissonance takes place. But if you would take your laudable honesty further, to its ultimate conclusion you would see that subjective morality leads further than nihilism.

      A subjective morality is an arbitrary morality. You avoid calling it that and avoid thinking about it as that because it only emphasizes your dissonance. But repeat after me, it’s a-r-b-i-t-r-a-r-y. If it’s not necessary then it’s arbitrary. It is what it is but it could have very well be something else. It just *happens* to be what it is. You say:

      “If I don’t believe in objective evil – because I don’t believe in objective values – it does not follow that I don’t regard anything as evil, nor that I should stop complaining when something that I regard as evil is done. Obviously, if I believe that values are subjective, I still believe in values – namely, subjective ones!”
      Well, a subjective value it’s nothing more than a description of what it is, not a prescription of what should be. Without an objective morality there is no “should” or “ought” (in Hume’s lingo).

      You continue:

      I have moral views which say that (for instance) torturing sentient beings for fun is always wrong. I may not believe that there is a fact, discoverable by science or by philosophical analysis, that corresponds to the statement “torturing sentient beings for fun is always wrong,” but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t oppose such an action. In fact, I would oppose it with every fiber of my being. And I would certainly call it evil.
      The fact that there are no morality facts discoverable by science (which I agree) doesn’t mean that there are no objective moral facts. When you call an (i)moral action “always wrong” you automatically imply objective morality. “Always” gives it away. Your opposition to some actions “with every fiber of [your] being” also implies objective morality as well. You cannot truly believe that your morality is arbitrary and realize that you might as well have held a contrary position and, at the same time, display such ardor in enforcing your morality.

      You further give up a strict “subjective morality” when you say:

      Nor is this merely my subjective opinion. There is actually a great deal of intersubjective agreement on such issues. The vast majority of us are opposed to murder and rape, for example.
      It follows that you base your “subjective” morality on consensus. If you hold on to “subjectivity” it means that it just happens one view to be the consensus but there is nothing special about it. If consensus was that slavery was OK then it *was* OK. If consensus was that eugenics is OK than it *was* OK. If the consensus was that it’s OK to kill people from the other tribe that killed people from our tribe then it *was* OK. If the consensus was that abortion is OK then it *was* OK. If the consensus was that the Darwinian goal of the survival of the fittest was best to live by then rape was a good way to fulfill it and spread around your genes around then it *was* OK. You can only describe what “is” (in your case, what the consensus *is*) not what “ought” to be. But then you fight “with every fiber of [your] being” for what *is* (*happens to be*) as thought it is what *ought to be*.

      Both you and Michael Shermer believe strongly in objective morality (and it creates a dissonance with other compartments of your paradigms). Michael likes to think that it is derived from science while you like to call it “subjective morality.” Each one gets his intellectual comfort his own way.

      • Adrian April 16, 2015 at 7:09 am - Reply

        I didn’t have time to finish my thoughts last time, so here I go again.

        You say “there are no moral facts, period.” You do this to distinguish your view from Michael’s that is fraught with Hume’s is-ought problem. But then you contradict that statement because it becomes obvious that you believe in subjective moral facts. You say: “Obviously, if I believe that values are subjective, I still believe in values – namely, subjective ones!” They are facts because you believe they apply *always*: “torturing sentient beings for fun is always wrong.” That is true regardless if you call them subjective or not. You say that most people agree (the consensus) but even if only you believed in it – you believed that it was *true* (else you wouldn’t hold to it). That is, you would have a subjective belief in an objective truth/value/morality. This is further confirmed by the fact that you make it absolute by stating that it’s always true. You confuse the nature of the belief (which may very well be subjective) with the object of the belief (which you and every other person treat as being objective).

        Something that you fail to see is that the is/ought problem does not apply to objective morality only but to *any* morality, including a subjective morality. You say there are the 2 standard views: 1) objective morality and 2) “holding that nothing can be regarded as good or bad” and then your view (the 3rd), believing in subjective morality. But if you say there are no moral facts whatsoever and are consistent with that then you end up believing #2 above (no values, no good or bad). On the other hand, if you maintain that there is *true* morality, even if only subjective, you still end up with the same problem as Michael; you haven’t escaped it by demoting morality to “subjective.”

        You come up with an arbitrary criterion (consensus), observe what matches the criteria (observe what *is*) and then declare that “is” a subjective “ought.” You failed to cross that bridge between “is” and “ought” just as bad as Michael. He would agree with me that declaring morality subjective does not solve the problem. You agree with me that basing morality on science does not solve the problem either. Both of you are right. In your case your morality is devoid of content, it only has form. The form being your criterion (consensus or whatever else somebody else would come up with). But whatever matches the criterion (whatever “is”) becomes moral (even if only in terms of a subjective morality). It could be one thing or it’s very opposite. It doesn’t matter, what matters is the criterion. Therefore your morality has no content but only a form. Thus it is purely arbitrary. And, to go further, your form (criterion) is arbitrary as well – you couldn’t say why your criterion is better than others (even if you tried to answer, another “why” would further question any answer ad infinitum).

        You say that a believer in subjective morality is more likely to re-asses his views compared to one that believes in objective morality. If a belief in “subjective morality” is truly subjective (not only in terms of the nature of the belief but in terms of the object of the belief, as I explained above) then it’s no morality at all. It’s just an arbitrary “is” that could have very well been something else. In this case any moral assessment or re-assessment would come back empty: nothing is better or worse than the other. Therefore a believer in a truly subjective morality would have no reason to change his view (and he wouldn’t really have a moral/value-based view in the first place).

        If, on the other hand, a belief in “subjective morality” is a belief in true morality (as it’s obvious that you hold) then you are no more likely to change your view than a believer in objective morality. To you “subjectivity” is nothing more than an excuse to cover up your cognitive dissonance and pretend you have intellectual comfort and consistency. It’s just admitting that other people may have other views even if most don’t while you *truly* believe that you are right (which is why you are ready to fight for it with every fiber of your being). This implies that you believe that others who do not hold to your view are wrong and the should hold to your view which is right. Further, you are ready to fight to restrict their actions derived from the wrong view. Well, describing you I just described a believer in objective morality. There is no difference. Calling your morality subjective is just a patch-up to hide the incompatibility/dissonance between your materialist compartment of your paradigm and the moral compartment. It’s just an objective morality in disguise.

        The irony is that you don’t even realize that your example to support your statement about capacity to re-assess proves just the contrary of what you intend to prove. You say: “that kind of intransigence [of believers in objective morality] can lead to serious problems. Proponents of religious morality often end up defending things most of us nowadays find horrible (e.g., William Lane Craig justifying the Israelites. slaughter of children in conquered tribes)”. Now read it again and tell me who is more likely to re-assess his virew, Craig or you? It seems Craig reassessed his moral judgements based on cultural, historical or theological factors. Did you do any re-assessing? Even though you throw in a “nowadays” to give the impression of subjectivity and temporal relativity your view is really absolute. You believe “now” but what you believe now you believe it to be true for *all* history, including the history of the events Craig discusses. Now, who is more intransigent? Can you claim that your view is any less objective than Craig’s? No, you can’t. This goes back to your other statement about some acts being “always wrong.”

        Your statement about Sam Harris claiming that it might be a good thing in certain circumstances for the entire human race to be exterminated just provides further support to my position that there is no limit to where morality can lead if a noncontingent morality (that I described previously) is given up. One can come up with *any* moral rule or criterion. Now we all have an innate sense of morality, value, worth, better vs. worse, right vs. wrong, etc (and a corresponding, very strong, compartment in our paradigm which often creates a dissonance with other compartments). Nobody can be truly consistent holding to a contingent morality because one would have no reason to hold to any view. Ultimately all views would be arbitrary and none better than any other. But your opposition to Haris’ view (implying that it’s unreasonable) once again proves that you believe yourself in an intransigent, objective morality. You could never prove that your criteria for deriving morality (and you mentioned consensus) is better than Haris’ criteria. But insisting that it’s better in spite of lack of any proofs of any kind reveals that your morality is ultimately an objective morality.

        All these attempts to hide this moral dissonance prove that we have an unrenounceble sense of true, objective morality. But it must be noncontingent (for example, independent of the contingent universe) or else it becomes arbitrary, amorality. That’s unacceptable to any of us (because of this strong sense of morality/value that we cannot live without) – even to Franz (at least if he’s honest) – and contradicts a strict materialism.

  6. John La G April 10, 2015 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    Reminded of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, on the folly of “morals” as something “out there” to be “discovered” by scientific method. He writes, “Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something discovered; it is something molded.” Or Kant’s “idea of a thing versus the thing itself.” In this light, morals become less about following tribal-cultural rules, but becoming personally integrated with the design of the universe. The thing itself.

    • Joseph Woodhouse April 10, 2015 at 5:46 pm - Reply

      If morals are about becoming personally integrated with the design of the universe, then morals are about understanding exactly what that design might be. Science and reason are the best tools we have for understanding the Universe as it is and ruling out errant and superstitious beliefs. In this view, the existence of morals is intimately connected with a rigorous deployment of science and reason.

      • John La G April 10, 2015 at 9:35 pm - Reply

        Spiritual history suggests that focused, meditation-like practices and lifestyle are the best tools we have for integrating with nature, practices which have nothing to do with superstitious belief. Science and reason are useful for understanding the data of cause and effect, but universal morals (love, compassion, empathy..) are not something we understand via “study” of data, but rather something we become — viscerally, via practice.
        Near the end of his life, Isaac Newton said, “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in multiplicity … I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
        As a scientist-engineer, I have the highest regard for the scientific method in our quest for dualistic, applied knowledge. But experience has taught me that morality is not something we “possess” in the same way we possess logic and formulae and scientific data and mathematical principles, or even religious data and symbolic beliefs. Like Newton, those seeking truth via scientific and behavioral knowledge at some point recognize that what they don’t “know” is infinitely greater than what they do know, and will always be so. Recognizing this, I suggest, is the beginning of our quest for the moral or unified or integrated life.

        • Joseph Woodhouse April 11, 2015 at 6:21 am - Reply

          Recognizing “that what they don’t “know” is infinitielly greater than what they do know, and will always be so”, they (scientists) perfected the scientific method which allowed them to discern the veracity of their models of the Universe. In so far, as the method and models exist in the field of human awareness, they are coextensive with and inform all other content in this field of awareness including all of the wonderful present centered meditative states where awareness glimpses itself.

          These embodied states of love and compassion that supposedly rise above all scientific understanding are modulated in the most delightful way by an accurate view of the Universe as it is. This I understand to be Michael Shermer’s beautiful insight.

      • Adrian April 16, 2015 at 9:09 am - Reply

        Joseph, you seem to have a blind faith in science. I loved science even before I had my first science class. I still love science more than any other subject that I ever learned in school. I believe science is very important and we are much indebted to science but that doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t see its shortcomings. You have an idealistic view of science on which you built your “awareness” thing. Of course, we all want smooth, dissonance free and bump free foundations of our paradigms and easily patch up to hide incompatibilities and help us feel good and intellectually consistent. But that’s a deceiving idealism. Among the things that we don’t yet know (referencing Newton’s quote and the discussion on it) is that in some ways we are currently wrong. Your idea of continual scientific progress is again idealist. See Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions. Research how often scientific ideas are overtuned. Or how many scientific articles are retracted and so on.

        You say (in response to John’s response): “they (scientists) perfected the scientific method which allowed them to discern the veracity of their models of the Universe.” This also gives away your idealism. There is no perfecting of the scientific method. It’s just a method and it remained fundamentally unchanged since the 17th century when it came about. Scientists can use it to perfect theories but the method isn’t perfected itself.

        Further, scientists can never ever discern the veracity of a model or theory. Both models and theories require unprovable assumptions. The best that the scientific method can do is to discern the *non*-veracity of a theory or model. See the falisfiability principle. At the most you can say that a theory makes confirmed predictions but you can never say that a theory is true. That is because it’s always possible that another theory with different assumptions makes the same predictions. So a confirmed prediction can only tell you “not wrong yet” but cannot tell you “this is confirmed as true.” For example the current issue of Science celebrates 100 years since General Relativity. It tells how scientists try to take GR to extremes to see if it still holds or breaks because there are other theories that make the same predictions on the scales where predictions have been confirmed for GR but make different predictions at other scales. Also, it is known that you can arrive at Special Relativity without the postulate of relativity (as a matter of fact I developed a theory that specifically contradicts this postulate and still makes the same observed predictions). Therefore, your faith in a strict “veracity” of science is misplaced. Again, the scientific method can only tell you which theories are not yet proved wrong but cannot ever tell you which ones are right. Einstein said: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

        Now, getting back to your post I’m replying to, you say: “If morals are about becoming personally integrated with the design of the universe, then morals are about understanding exactly what that design might be. Science and reason are the best tools we have for understanding the Universe as it is”. Design implies intentions, a goal, a plan to be carried out, premeditating. What John hints is that there is an intention or goal in the universe. Now if by science you mean the study of (or inquiry about) the material universe then science cannot directly test the process of designing the universe (i.e., the “intention” or “goals” behind it). Such a definition will automatically exclude apriori any non-material hypothesis and the scientist may be thus unable and restricted to infer any design, intention, goal or morality from his observations of the universe. They would be unable to see any design in the universe. For example, Francis Crick says: “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.” [What Mad Pursuit, p. 138]. If by science you mean the scientific method then you can apply it to probe such goals. However you probably mean the first and you mistake the capability of science to describe the universe (how it works) with incapability of science to answer the ultimate “why.” Then you continue by saying: “the existence of morals is intimately connected with a rigorous deployment of science and reason.” You ignored all my objections and continue your wishful thinking, intellect-comforting but oblivious notion that science and reasoning offer a base for morality. What about some honesty? You would be quick to point out that the superstitious hold on to their views in spite of contradictory evidence but what about yourself?

        By the way, with due appreciation and esteem for the scientific method, other logical methods, such as deduction, are more reliable, straight forward (see Occam’s razor) and preferable. It is just that deduction is often not enough in the scientific inquiry and scientists need to resort to the scientific method (which relies itself on deduction).

  7. John La G April 11, 2015 at 8:31 am - Reply

    Well said, though Shermer is just one of myriad thinkers who have attempted such a bridge, including a wide range of thoughtful scientists, behaviorists, and philosophers. This conversation highlights two distinctive definitions of morality. The first kind can be written down in book, as a science experiment. The second kind can only be lived, embodied, practiced. Both are “valid” but the latter transcends traditional scientific tools which require a duality: an observer and observed. If we want to understand embodied morality from a scientific perspective, we need a profound new understanding of science as integration, where observer and observed are a single set, one identity. Alas, rather than seek to define morality using scientific method (which is limited to what can be written down in a book), we use embodied morality to inspire a new paradigm of non-dualistic science. Wait, what’s that you say? People have been practicing “non-dualistic science” for thousands of years? Looks like we’re late to the party!

    • Joseph Woodhouse April 11, 2015 at 9:14 am - Reply

      I agree… these insights could never be the province of just one man, or religion, or set of eastern non-dualistic scientific practices. They are nothing less than man’s natural endowment, the treasures that are found in the well modulated human awareness.

      I say we exercise this knowledge and try not to get lost in competition or nit picking. As we develop a skill in modulating awareness, vast new vistas in the awareness phenomenological state space are opened and with it, a whole new way of conceiving of morality and mankind’s place in the Universe.

      In this era, science and reasoning are leading the way and the vistas are breathtaking, beautiful and terrifying. Lets explore and utilize these insights together to solve our current human predicament.

      Here is a littlel picture of what morality may involve
      http://www.arkofawareness.com/artwork/47-headless-in-big-history/

  8. John La G April 11, 2015 at 10:37 am - Reply

    “science and reasoning are leading the way” …. Spoken like a true evangelical :-). I would offer that our most effective moral agents have always been those focused charitably and compassionately on others, on bridging tribal divides, on loving, protecting, serving, healing, nurturing, and comforting.
    From this observer’s perspective, those moral agents “leading the way” tend to be social workers, aid workers, bridge builders, humanitarian leaders, peace makers and peaceful resistance workers and corruption fighters … those who consciously sacrifice income and comforts to help reduce systemic pain and suffering. Science and reasoning, I would suggest, are not our “leading moral agents,” but remain valuable assistants to those who are. (by the way, I like your picture. reminds me of a great book I read decades ago called The Universe is a Green Dragon. In fact, that book is highly relevant to a conversation on science and morality).

  9. Adrian April 16, 2015 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    John, I agree with your comments on Newton’s quote. But I don’t agree with your statement: “But experience has taught me that morality is not something we “possess” in the same way we possess logic.” I don’t see how experience has taught us (I allow that it may just be semantics and we ultimately agree though). I believe that experience (observations) – and Michael’s article and comments here are proofs – has taught us that people have (or posses) a very strong, universal and undeniable sense of objective morality and will go to great lengths and extremes to make if fit the rest of their paradigm. They just can’t give it up. Even when they think they can (see Franz) it’s just a disguise. People could not live (other than biologically) without a sense of absolute. But this may create a dissonance with other compartments that are fundamental to one’s paradigm (for example science and materialism) and it’s very hard to admit this dissonance. It’s much easier to hide it under a patch (Michael and Franz use different kinds of patches for the same dissonance) or just ignore it (as it’s Joseph’s case, as he’s aware of my objections but goes on ignoring them). Very rarely you find the honesty of somebody to admit a dissonance in a matter that’s fundamental to one’s paradigm (the reason being the fact that it’s the paradigm that defines who we are and questioning a part of it is like denying ourselves). We like to pretend only the opposition has such problems (for example Joseph mentioned the superstitious which is also Michael’s usual opponent).

    The part where the way we morality is different than the way we posses logic is that, unlike logic, the content of this moral sense may differ from person to person (and it is in this sense that it’s subjective) [maybe that’s what you meant and we are in agreement]. There is a good deal of the content that is pretty universal and even the subjectivist Franz agrees with that. This takes us to another quote you made that I don’t agree with. It’s from Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something discovered; it is something molded.” I agree that it has to be done individually (and in this sense is’t a subjective quest for an objective morality as I mentioned above while I still allow for some degree of government enforceable morality) but we cannot find it in ourselves we cannot mold it. Yes, we posses more or less of this non-contingent morality but that can’t be the ultimate source. If each one could mold it, how would one do it? What standards or criteria would one use? Whatever one feels like? Should one use or criterion based on meditation and integration with the universe or Franz’ criterion of consensus? How does one know which criteria is better? This takes us back to my comments to Franz that a subjective morality is either a subjective view of a true/objective morality or a truly objective morality that is no morality at all (as it’s completely arbitrary, nothing better than anything else).

    If there is no non-contingent morality out there that the individual can discover we are doomed. Morality and life would be just a charade. When I say discover I don’t imply that individuals don’t already posses some degree of this morality. Indeed, they do. What I mean is that there is more than that. If this non-contingent is (or must be) associated (or is identical) to a mind or sentient being (and I’m convinced it is but that’s another subject) then knowing and learning that mind would be the window towards that morality. This would take us to another topic and another discussion. However is my *subjective* opinion that meditation (focused or not) and integration with the universe, although may be good and laudable, are not the right path to this non-contingent morality. You may find something about them in the details of the morality but they are neither the source or the venue of morality (this would be yet another discussion).

  10. John La Grou April 16, 2015 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    Adrian, not sure I can elaborate any deeper. To me, morality is who we are, not what we know. It’s what we do, not what we think. It’s action, not opinion. It’s experiencing the taste ice cream versus an explanation of how ice cream tastes. It’s the ancient philosophical-spiritual idea of unity versus duality. In the Christian tradition, it’s apophatic vs cataphatic. In Hinduism, it’s “neti neti” or advaita. In philosophical traditions, it might be considered “the thing itself vs our idea of the thing” (Kant) or various flavors of monism or holism (Hegel, Spinoza, etc.). David Chalmers has explored similar concepts in terms of unified mind and consciousness. Morality … at least the morality that’s defined beyond Maslow 5 … falls perhaps into the Buddhist “14 unanswerable questions.” The many hues of morality (love, compassion, empathy, grace…) transcend a dualistic / scientific approach to understanding. Morals emanate, in my experience, from a place where the know-er and the known are non-differentiated. To me, the words “moral” and “love” reflect the identical reality.

    I think I just said the same thing, in about 15 variations :-) Hopefully one variation has some validity for you.

    • Adrian April 28, 2015 at 10:36 am - Reply

      John, you did make it clearer and I agree more with you now. Yes, morality is more about who we are than what we know. But it cannot be reduced to what we are because 1) we are so different, some love, some hate (even myself I’m not 100% consistent with my principles). Therefore that cannot offer an objective base and without one all my criticism I’ve already provided still applies.
      2) what we are is still the “what is” not the “what ought to be”. This can be partly resolved if you accept and independent, self-sufficient morality to which people are more or less attuned. It seems to me you need to also emphasize the relation between the individual and the independent morality. When you say: “Morals emanate, in my experience, from a place where the know-er and the known are non-differentiated.” do you mean that the individual (the know-er) is the source of morality?

      Not contrary to what you said but still an addition to your statement, “morality is who we are, not what we know”: sometimes what we know determines what we are. This is the sense in which Joseph’s emphasis on “awareness” is relevant. Some concepts and ideas (including ones on morality) or “pieces of knowledge” (including values, priorities, etc.) lie at the foundation of our paradigms. They determine what we like, what we do, how we view & interpret things, what makes sense and what not. They define what we are.

  11. John La Grou April 29, 2015 at 9:09 am - Reply

    Seems like there are two tracks in this conversation. One track is focused on Maslow-2-level “definitions” of morality, attempting to “scientifically prove” the veracity (universality?) of such definitions. That’s not a conversation I’m currently interested in, but more power to those who are.
    You suggest that “pieces of knowledge lie at the foundation of our paradigms.” Of course that’s true. But what I’m suggesting is that the ultimate expression of morality is not “our paradigm,” not something we collectively or politically define. Rather, I’m suggesting that ultimate morality is embedded into the fabric of the universe. I’m suggesting that, to “understand” this morality, we must embody it, not simply define or explain, but become. WE become defined by morality, not the other way around. And when we become, we see morality not as an “idea” but as a unified state of being. Not as a dualistic “interpretation,” but as undifferentiated consciousness itself, a state of being that Maslow points to beyond Level 5. As I expressed in earlier comments, I think morality is best expressed and embodied by various spiritual / religious practice and experience, described fairly consistently by innumerable yogis, saints, monks, and renunciates throughout millennia.
    Perhaps we could pull the camera back and reveal a much wider panorama, in which “morality” becomes part of the larger philosophical conversation on spirituality, non-duality, integration, holism, monism, etc.. the uncanny chasm between being v. knowing.

  12. Dr. Jack L. Edwards April 29, 2015 at 11:00 am - Reply

    The following are in a sense meta-comments and I believe address subtleties that exist in all discussions of any topic. In fact, those subtleties may very well hold the solution to the lack of progress we have made in the last two thousand years or so in trying to understand and resolve the difference between “is” and “ought.”

    What lurks in the background of discussions of science and morality, underlying the issue of “is” vs. “ought,” is our inability to know what is causing us to say what we are saying at the moment, that is, our inability to at once say what we are saying and to understand fully all of the causes, from our past and our present, which have brought us to this point in time and account for our saying it. The conundrum gets a bit clearer, though in a sense more befuddling, when we realize that, to identify those causes, we once again must talk, which leaves us in exactly the same quandary of explaining the causes of that verbal behavior. It is like the uneasy feeling we got many years ago when we realized that the definition of any word in the dictionary is just more words. How can that be? How do we really know what any word means if all we have are other words to tell us? Most of us just ignored that mystery and moved on.

    Another way to make this point is that we treat our verbal behavior as if it is something entirely different from that about which we are talking, as if what we are talking about has an explanation or a solution but we have no need to explain or solve the problem of what causes explain why we are saying what we are saying. What causes us to use words like “morality,” and to say all of the things we say about it? What are the causes of that, and of all the other things we say, that is, all of our other verbal behavior on any topic?

    Stepping back then into this bit of “meta-thought,” if you will, we can begin to see a little better how science might ultimately help us account for both the “is” and “ought” statements that we make. Making such statements and the causes responsible for us making them are both part of what “is.” Trying to wriggle out of that and preserve the distinction by saying something like, “You ought to have said ‘X,’ when you said ‘Y’” does not save the distinction since there are similar, unexplained and very complex reasons for why someone would make that statement.

    It is clear that we do not have any good answers to what causes our ongoing verbal behavior because there are so very many things that have occurred in both our evolutionary and personal histories that have brought us, as individual human beings, to this point in time and that, along with what is going on at the moment, cause us to say what we are now saying, in this case, to make statements of “should” or “ought.”

    So, we talk as if what we say, that is, our verbal behavior somehow sits outside of that to which it is said to refer, the latter being a candidate for scientific explanation, but the former somehow being exempt. It is not; it is only very poorly understood. What then really is responsible for us saying what we do at the moment? We have little understanding of that now but will eventually understand it, identify its causes and successfully predict others’, if not our own, verbal statements, and under increasingly fewer constrained conditions. That means, in the present case, why we are saying what we are about the “is” vs. “ought” distinction.

    In sum: saying what we say, and the causes for why we say what we say, seem inarguably part of the category of “is,” not the category of “ought,” and that is how the two “Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA),” to use Stephen Gould’s phrase, will be resolved and how Gould himself will rest more peacefully “knowing” that his Magisteria is really only a single, Magisterium.

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