Tuesday, March 23, 2010

skepticism and the last dogma



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

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

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

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

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

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

To these specific changes in fundamental worldview, I say, fair enough; I can't argue with either turn, I suppose. For my part I would only remind them that we live here, in the relentless narrative of our human subjectivity, and such things are of little interest when the rent must be paid. But fair enough, all the same. What I ask of them-- what Nietzsche asks of them; what so many in the field of the humanities, that beleaguered but proud area of human inquiry, have come to ask of them-- is to take it one step further: that if we are indeed a cosmic accident, the result of the directionless and random process of evolution, then it makes little sense to imagine that we are capable of ordering the world around us, beyond the limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves. This has always been to me the simplest step in the world, from the first two beliefs the the third, from the collapse of geocentrism and creationism to the collapse of objective knowing. Yet I find that it is one many people not only refuse to make, but one that they react against violently. This is the skepticism that is refused, and this refusal is the last dogma.

All of this would be just another round in the great battle of human disagreement, and as always, I work with precious little ammunition and, often enough, not even the will to fire. What compels me to speak is that there are many Sam Harrises in the world, and most of them wield their epistemologies against other people. Many atheists, for example, say that religion arose as a way to enforce power, that people looked out unto a frightening and incomprehensible world, and that the priests said, "this is the way," and the fix was in. That was Marx's line, anyway. What I want to suggest from where I stand is that any way of knowing that claims certainty is inevitably the enforcement of power. All philosophical systems are, of course; mine most certainly is. And yes, we are inevitably going to require some minimal normative framework to make basic social interaction necessary. But degree matters, and every step we take back from absolute or totalizing claims, I think, increases the space for people to live their strange, idiosyncratic lives. And if it is the case that man invented God because he looked out at a terrifying world, it is equally the case that man invents the perfect cognition because he looks out at a terrifying world. Each is a comfort, but I wonder if it is not to our pragmatic benefit to look with great skepticism upon both. Sam Harris, too, is in the condition of the caveman looking out unto an endless, empty sky, and that is why I must criticize his convictions, and that is why I must extend to him, to the degree I am able, understanding and compassion.


This line of thinking has always been met with some standard criticisms: that it is self-refuting, that it is antagonistic towards science, that it renders us incapable of standing in opposition to what we call evil. This last one is a favorite of many, and it is a bit like blaming a murder on the constraints of police power rather than on the murderer. All of history's greatest villains were people who were certain. From Pol Pot to Hitler to Stalin to the Spanish Inquisition, the conquistadors, the progenitors of the Rwandan genocide, the Ku Klux Klan.... They all had it all figured out. I read neoconservative critiques of postmodern -- I read, for example, Sullivan's infamous post 9-11 essay on Islam and John Rawls-- and I wonder what exactly they might make of the history of human suffering, and from where they think crimes against humanity emanate. What the world needs isn't yet another muscular certainty that seeks to impose itself on all. What it needs is doubt, I think.

But suppose my intuition is wrong. Suppose there is, actually, a transcendent morality, a right and wrong that is capital-t True, that is non-contingent, not temporal, that applies to each and every person and situation: then totalitarianism must become the truth of man. If Sam Harris emerges from his lab with his beaker and his chart of what is right and what is wrong-- cast the human question onto the fire. There could be no difference, no diversity. Say goodbye individualism, say hello to the jackboot, and knowing that it is all the worse for being objectively true. To Harris's credit, he acknowledges in the video that there will never be some moral calculator that empowers us to make every minute moral decision with objective certainty. But as soon as we remove doubt, as soon as there is a moral framework that is endless and timeless, fascism has become the truth of man. Nazism was not a moral obscenity merely because it got the answer so terribly wrong, but also because it thought to give the whole answer entirely. Harris gives himself an out by talking of peaks and valleys of moral behavior, but as long as he and his fellow philosopher-kings are holding the measuring tape, that is the end of human freedom. Harris is no fascist, not at all, but fascism is at the heart of his project, his "moral realism."

Among the few necessary social  functions that religion performed, and that we now are lacking in a post-theistic world, is the enforcement of a certain humility. There is no god, but you and I are still dust, we always were.

Update: I have posted a response to the usual comments here.

66 comments:

Matt Frost said...

Your list of "human achievement yuppies" is a list for the ages.

Evan Harper said...

In case you don't know, in "End of Faith," Harris mulls over the possible merits of pre-emptive atomic genocide, and asserts that the only possible objections to the arbitrary detention and torture of young Muslim Iraqi men (he actually calls them "rather scrofulous") come from softheaded religious sentimentality.

Steven Brown said...

I like this, Freddie. I can certainly understand, for a person with dependents like myself, a deep-seeded desire for order, which is to say, protection. It's the same instinct that defines Locke's state of nature. But I am cognizant enough, as you say, to be skeptical about the precarious and subjective nature of that desire. Besides, it's not like we haven't tried to balance the puritan brand of burka and the bikini. Ever watch the Andy Griffith Show? Enter suburban mediocrity. Once science has found the moral g-spot in the brain, what then? Will we all come together in a moment of "a-ha" conviviality, toasting an end to moral delinquency? It seems to me that some form of DNA coercion will be needed to counter major resistance by the senses, which are often the nemeses of reason. Methinks I hear the Director beckoning from some brave new world. Maybe the best we can do is recognize and use our illusions. Thus spoke Nietzsche, or was it Axl Rose? In any case, I would be skeptical of any conclusion about morality as well, ESPECIALLY if MY brain is the authority!

Enjoyed the read and the vid!

individualfrog said...

Sometimes I feel this weird sense of having arrived at the same place by entirely different means. This is like, exactly the kind of thing I was talking about in my book list, but from a totally different direction, right?

a random philosopher said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your attack here on certainty, and on epistemological pictures where the human mind is taken as having some sort of unmediated, uncriticizable contact with Reality. What I don't understand -- what I don't even begin to understand -- is why you think that this Harris talk is a good target for those attacks. He is himself speaking out against a particular kind of bad certainty: a certainty about the claim that ethical questions are beyond knowability. I think you are perhaps conflating two notions that, though similar in meaning, in these sorts of contexts have very different implications: _certainty_, on the one hand, and _obviousness_, on the other. Harris traffics in a large number of obvious claims (e.g., the Dalai Lama has a better grasp on morality than Ted Bundy). Should we somehow fail to recognize such facts, and indeed to recognize them as obvious? No. That would be foolish, and itself conducive to the flourishing of evil. It would be just as foolish as yielding to a radical kind of skeptic who would lead me to doubt the existence of the basic physical objects around me. But Harris makes no efforts here to hang that obviousness on any of the sorts of metaphysical or epistemological guarantors of certainty that you (rightly) rail against here.

Putting it another way: I don't know enough about some of those other authors, but I'm darn sure that both Hume and Rorty would be on Harris' side here. It's important to be skeptical about the metaphysics, while doing so without losing touch with basic facts about the world around one; and one can take oneself to have at least _some_ very successful contact with that world, without in any way in the slightest requiring that that contact be unmediated or unchallengeable.

Mattavina said...

through the eyes of the man who destroys, destruction is benevolence

Mike Schilling said...

How can you be so sure than there's something wrong with certainty?

Freddie said...

Mike is of course making the famous "self-refutation" gambit, which is tautological; it assumes the very vision of truth that I am denying. You can look that stuff up; it's an old, but flaccid argument.

More to the point, Mike, please find any section of this post-- any section at all-- where I seem "so certain" of anything. Please. Quote away. Show me where I have said anything in a certain way at all.

a random philosopher said...

Ironically, Mike is making the same mistakes against Freddie that Freddie is making against Harris.

Freddie said...

Haha, why, I do believe you're correct, a random philosopher.

Forrest said...

I don't really get it... It seems to me that Sam Harris didn't guarantee certainty, and that he inferred that we were limited by our limited understanding of what human suffering is and how to reduce it.

It also seems to me that Sam Harris actually stated quite clearly that he though it was possible that uniformity was not the answer, that there were many roughly equal answers.

I think he used some cliche examples to drive home his point that there are some clearly metrics of better and worse... but this wasn't a claim about being certain about it. It was just a claim about there being differences, certain differences which are bounded in facts about the human condition and the human mind. Facts which we are desperately ignorant about, uncertain about, but facts that exist.

Chet said...

I'm sorry but you're completely wrong. Skepticism and science work in spite of the flaws in human cognition, not because there are no flaws. The scientific method is the way it is to overcome the failures of cognition.

Ultimately, each one of us is the result of order imposed not from without, but up from within - smaller units self-assembling into larger, ordered states. There's every reason to believe that the same process can apply order on a scale larger than ourselves as individuals, just as it applied order on a scale larger than atoms and molecules and cells, throughout evolutionary history.

There's no faith in human cognition in the position of Harris and the rest; there's a deep, deep distrust of it. In the face of that distrust, the scientific method is the only reliable tool for accurate knowledge about the nature of the universe.

Again, not because human cognition is not flawed, but in spite of the fact that it is flawed.

Brian L said...

"If we are indeed a cosmic accident, the result of the directionless and random process of evolution, then it makes little sense to imagine that we are capable of ordering the world around us, beyond the limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves."

This assumes that the purpose of knowing is to find means of ordering the world. Learning may help us understand the universe and live in it, but it will not allow us to command the elements. And that's fine. My inability to move a rock would not cancel out the shared knowledge of the rock's existence and its potential uses. Similarly, if I wake up in a deep cave with nothing but a lamp, the powerlessness I feel would not cancel the usefulness of lighting the lamp and finding a way out.

Anonymous said...

This has always been to me the simplest step in the world, from the first two beliefs the the third, from the collapse of geocentrism and creationism to the collapse of objective knowing. Yet I find that it is one many people not only refuse to make, but one that they react against violently.

the language here suggests certainty. you make a "simple" deduction based on two proposition that others "refuse to make" and even "react against violently."

this is not to say that i necessarily disagree with everything you say, but i have to agree with random philosopher that Sam Harris is not a good target for your critique. he talks very little of certainty in his lecture, referring instead to continuums and a variegated "moral landscape." the only suggestion he makes that approaches a claim of certainty is that human beings have some innate capacity to comprehend morality. he is very careful, however, not to assert that there is some absolute morality.

this is why i think you fatally undermine your argument by suggesting that Harris' philosophy somehow contains the seeds of fascism. i don't hear anything in his talk to suggest that he thinks people should be forced to accept one specific morality. indeed, my feeling is that he would say that this is precisely what is done by Muslim countries that force women to wear "burlap sacks"

stu said...

Not a philosopher, but your writing reminded me of something....

Peter Drucker, the great management & social theorist, said similar things in one of his early books, The Future of Industrial Man, which I've long felt (esp. in conjunction with the other two books in his opening trilogy) is an under-appreciated view of how free society holds together. Which was an extension of his views on Kierkegaard.

pigeonweather said...

I think I remember a quote from Nietzsche that was something along the lines of "life is no argument, because the conditions of life could include error". Similarly, the conditions of life could include the tendency to make order. Recent discoveries of the existence of 'golden mean' ratios in the quantum world might be a further indication that "life" (as we barely know it, on this planet at least) is self-ordering along consistent lines. This doesn't mean that the tendency to create order actually results in correct or perfect order ever being obtained, but it might suggest that the origins of religion, philosophy and science are one and the same - our brains (which find patterns everywhere) are always sorting and sifting, arranging and composing, in a continuous search for the sense of safety and satisfaction that comes with the notion of certainty (which is perhaps the definition of "belief")

tricstmr said...

Freddie,

I think you read a bit much into Harris's talk, but I tried to pay attention and there were too instances of language where Harris's position could tend to lead you in that direction.

1) Somewhere early on--around minute 4-5 or so--Harris says something like "we will find that values reduce to facts..." and when he said that, I said NO. However, soon after that Harris did come back and explain his caveat--around 5:50 or so--that he didn't think science or some super-computer would be able to tell you what to do... And he further then began to elaborate in a way that showed that he was not trying to construct a totalizing ideology of science explaining and deciding all of our moral choices for us--but rather that facts are important for us in constructing moral guidelines..

2) Near the end of his talk, he kept using the word "converge" with regard to facts/morality/etc, and I found this usage problematic. Specifically, I found it problematic because usually we assume that convergence is something that happens towards one particular spot. However, throughout his talk before the end, he talked explicitly about there being many different "peaks" of moral systems and he used the example of food/nutrition to make it clear that he wasn't trying to push "one and only one way" to do everything. Thus, I think this talk about "converging" was not helpful for him as it lends itself too easily to the kind of rhetoric, ideals, and what not that do often become part of the totalizing ideologies that you--and Harris himself in the form of various religious organizations--that have caused the world so much harm..

Adam Ozimek said...

Religion provided a "certain humility" that science lacks? Most religions also suppose that there is also a certainty to moral truths, and that even if our fallible minds are condemned to imperfect understanding, in the end there is a true morality. Most religions also suppose that they are much further along in knowing with certainty what much of that truth is than moral realists do.

I just really don't buy that the pronouncements of moral certainty coming from moral realists are less humble than the pronouncements from believers. Compile a list of the moral truths that the average believer claims to know with certainty, and weigh that list against the list that average moral realist claims to know. How will those lists compare?

"What the world needs isn't yet another muscular certainty that seeks to impose itself on all. What it needs is doubt, I think."

The world needs doubt when appropriate and certainty when appropriate. Postmodern skepticism of science is harmful, and doubt is dangerous, when they lead people to reject good science, especially good medical science. Vaccine "skeptics", those who are just expressing "humility" and "doubt", are a much bigger problem in this world than moral realists with too much certainty.

Mere doubt and supposed humility can be incredibly arrogant when it is in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Anonymous said...

Trying to get the absolute and the relative together in the same place at the same time is a good trick. Let me know when you manage it.

K-Tron said...

ditto Chet @ Random.

What a load of crap.
Much of your post strikes me as a straw man argument. No one who reads Harris could come away with the idea that he "invents the perfect cognition because he looks out at a terrifying world" or that he is "not [skeptical] of his own capacity to judge" or that he is among those who "wield their epistemologies against other people". One of the pleasures of reading Harris is how refreshingly skeptical he is of human certainty and dogmatism. Indeed his entire book "The End of Faith" is an argument against dogmatism.

About 3/4 of the way into your post (before it succumbs hilariously to Godwin's Law) you mention that one of the standard arguments against your brand of skepticism is that it is self-refuting. Indeed it is, and for good reason. The notion that any real certainty is dogmatism is itself the kind of dogmatic claim that your brand of skepticism means to refute.

Speaking of fascism btw, you get it partly wrong in your last paragraph. You are right that fascism/Nazism/Stalinism are born of dogmatic truth claims. All totalitarian movements weave their philosophies out of hysterical truth claims that support each other like a rope supports the hanging man. But part of the horror of totalitarianism is its utter denial of any truth claims. It's internal logic is so terrifying precisely because it is so fickle and contingent. Truth in North Korea is whatever Kim Jong Il (he's the Ilest) says it is. I recall reading about the Soviet invasion of Hungary in '56 (or was it Czechoslovakia in '68?) where people put up signs in their storefronts that said "2+2=4". It was the only true statement that the invaders couldn't deny.

Anonymous said...

My understanding of "converging" in his talk was in the mathematical sense, i.e., to the local maxima rather than the global maximum.

Anonymous said...

goodness, this is a mess of self-congratulation.

EK said...

I think the disagreements here have at least shown us this: that the point of Sam's talk was not terribly clear. What was his point exactly? In his original post, Andrew suggested that Sam was trying to break down the fact-value divide, and Sam mentions this at the beginning of the talk, saying that values reduce to facts. Unfortunately, Sam never gets around to clearly explaining why. The closest he comes is to suggest that we will in the future be able to scan people's brains and tell exactly what they're thinking and feeling. That seems to me extremely optimistic, but let's suppose it's true. Would we then be able to tell what to do? Pretty clearly: no. That wouldn't tell us why or even whether it's better to help than to harm, or better to have compassion rather than indifference, etc. So unless I've missed something Sam's argument against the fact-value divide is very weak.

Then there's Sam's point that we are being too tolerant of differing moral opinions. One can easily agree with him that the Dalai Lama is a much better moral authority than Ted Bundy, but this tells us very little about judging other cultures and religions. My own view is that we certainly can judge and compare other cultures, but that we need to do two things first: (1) really understand that culture; and (2) not judge the practices in isolation. So, yes, killing your daughter because she was raped is abhorrent, but we can't properly judge the person who did this without understanding all the other parts of his culture, religion, etc. which led him to do this. And this is where Freddie's point about skepticism becomes useful. It's exceedingly difficult to really understand where that person is coming from without being a member of his culture and religion ourselves.

So another flaw in Sam's talk is that he doesn't say anything about interfaith and inter-culture dialogue, instead focusing on how we Westerners should condemn certain barbaric practices. How will this help end these practices he doesn't say, but I guess his answer is: end religion. Now maybe I'm not being sufficiently skeptical, but that's not going to happen, certainly not outside the West. (I also happen to think religion can be a very good thing, but that's another question.) Far better to encourage interfaith dialogue and moderation in religion rather than abolition.

I don't know what to make of Freddie's argument that Sam's views lead to some sort of fascism. That would require us to look at Sam's books, which I haven't read. But I agree with Freddie at least on this: moral certainty is unhelpful here. It limits us, who think we already know the answers. And it only antagonizes and entrenches anyone who thinks otherwise.

Anonymous said...

The chimpanzee may not be able to learn calculus, and so will never understand physics well enough to go to graduate school. Yet, he can still learn that it is not clever to jump off a cliff. Similarly, while human cognition may have its limits this does not mean that we cannot get somewhere.

Dave said...

Freddie, Andrew Sullivan quotes you as saying:

"if we are indeed a cosmic accident, the result of the directionless and random process of evolution, then it makes little sense to imagine that we are capable of ordering the world around us, beyond the limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves. This has always been to me the simplest step in the world, from the first two beliefs to the third, from the collapse of geocentrism and creationism to the collapse of objective knowing. Yet I find that it is one many people not only refuse to make, but one that they react against violently. This is the skepticism that is refused, and this refusal is the last dogma."

First, this isn't an argument. The links between the premises and the conclusion are not self-evident. Even if there is a connection, it stands in need of demonstration. Telling us that you see it plain as day is interesting, it tells me something about you, but it doesn't establish the connection.

Second, you seem certain that this connection holds. But such a certainty belies the epistemic modesty to which you aspire.

Third, you say "But suppose my intuition is wrong. Suppose there is, actually, a transcendent morality, a right and wrong that is capital-t True, that is non-contingent, not temporal, that applies to each and every person and situation: then totalitarianism must become the truth of man." Again, this is in need of demonstration. And anyhow, you seem certain about this connection. How does that jibe with your skepticism?

Skepticism is tough to define. Was Socrates a skeptic? He claimed to know only one thing. Was Pyrrho a skeptic? He certainly has a claim on the title. But you are not a skeptic. You claim epistemic certainty about the connection between certain facts of the universe and its moral consequences. Your epistemic humility is a farce.

Jefferson Smith said...

A remarkably cramped and cranky response to Harris. "Fascist"? Really? When does he say anything about state-worship? (I think you're confusing "fascist" and "totalitarian.") At any rate, it doesn't seem you really listened to what he was saying.

"If Sam Harris emerges from his lab with his beaker and his chart of what is right and what is wrong -- cast the human question onto the fire. There could be no difference, no diversity. Say goodbye individualism, say hello to the jackboot, and knowing that it is all the worse for being objectively true." This is a non-sequiter: It does not follow that the kind of insights that Harris says we can get from science would produce a world of "no difference, no diversity." It could well be -- and it seems to be what he has in mind -- that increased scientific understanding of the conditions of human flourishing and suffering would reveal that human beings flourish best in, precisely, a world of difference and diversity. That's what I take to be the point of his analogy to nutrition: The fact that some things are poison (and that science can help us know which things, and why), does not mean that there is only one possible healthy diet. You are committing the elementary fallacy of confusing two different claims: that some answers are provably wrong (what Harris is saying), and that there is only one single right answer (what you mis-hear him as saying).

At least in this talk -- and I'm not familiar with his other work -- Harris is wielding science against sociopolitical certainties and totalizing ideas of how people should be made to live. He's saying that just as we can know, scientifically, how a given disease undermines bodily flourishing and causes bodily suffering, we can scientifically determine that some sets of "moral" rules and social arrangements undermine human flourishing and increase human suffering more generally. That's essential to countering the actual fascists and totalitarians, because without some fact-based theory of what human beings need in order to thrive, we can't really explain what's wrong with (say) Pol Pot's idea that they need to be kept poor and illiterate, or the Taliban's idea that a good society is built on the oppression of women.

But, having consulted our fact-based theory to exclude those possibilities, we are still left with many others; there is no single set of arrangements that all human communities will inevitably have to adopt from here on. In my own life, eliminating some possible career paths that would clearly have been wrong for me did not leave me with no career choices; my "career question" still remained open, if anything to a frightening degree. Likewise, ruling out some answers to "the human question" as clearly dysfunctional does not cast that question onto the fire; it still remains open -- there will still be much debate about it and many different paths chosen, indeed all the more so insofar as the totalizing solutions have been discredited. Isn't that all for the good?

MN said...

As someone whose morality is based on being a "Human Achievement Yuppie" let me say, you are right obviously. We can never objectively know something. But so what?

We've discovered a series of actions (actions we perform subjectively) that yield results we desire (subjectively).

My morality basically lies in enabling the human species which is special because of its unimaginable range of possible actions that is, potential, to master the physical universe. We deserve to be undisputed masters of everything everywhere because we are the only ones who could do it. This is actually why I am a very hardcore liberal. I believe the best way to reach that place are liberal ideas. But the beauty and tragedy of humanity is that their potential is capable of what we subjectively define as "good" but equally of what we define as "evil."

So I guess I have to push back on human achievement.

Nothing is certain is science, that's the point. New data forces a revision of "what is."

If there is a scientific morality? Then totalitarianism as you put is the RIGHT thing to do. Whatever your subjective opinion is, if there is some more absolute that is actually a moral absolute, then it is appropriate to enforce that absolute.

For instance, generalized murder. It's prohibited except in certain ritualized contexts to ensure the continuation of the species. It's a biological imperative philosophically speaking. Thus is I look at it as an appropriate moral absolute in a general sense and it should be enforced without room for argument.

The exceptions are in certain ritualized circumstances, i.e. self-defense, war. Obviously you can't call it murder in case of accident because a prohibition on accident is useless in regards to preventing accidents.

It's hard of course to determine moral absolutes. I'm reluctant to expand moral absolutes much beyond things like murder. But they do exist and they should be enforced totalitarianly.

BillyBob said...

Freddie, that was an impressive bit of mental masturbation. Hope you used a Kleenex.

Katherine Calkin said...

Pre-Enlightenment philosophers sought ultimate truth, sought to know things "as they really are". Descarte and his predecessors dreamed of "perfect knowledge". I agree that we cannot know moral truths unequivocally in an ultimate sense. But that has not been the goal of human knowledge since the Enlightenment. The power of the Enlightenment was that it shifted the use of the human mind to ordering the universe with the aim of enhancing human happiness and relieving human suffering. In that context, it is possible to identify moral truths with absolute certainty (though it is sometimes difficult to apply them). That is the context that most humans have operated in since the 18th century. I think it is the context that Sam Harris was operating in. It is true that nothing may be known with certainty, but this is ultimately a lazy and desstructive worldview that leads only to nihilism.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience of Harris's talk as you did.

He seemed to miss the basic insight that his end of "human welfare" or whatever he called it was itself culture-dependent and not "objective". Once we accept "human welfare" as the axiom underlying moral behavior, then, OK, search for the maximal point of human welfare. The problem is that the axiom itself is deeply divisive. Muslims do not believe "maximal human welfare" is the point of life - they believe that observance of Allah's dictates are the point of life. Consistent Christians don't agree with Harris either - they believe following the rules set down by God, Moses, and Jesus are the point of life.

His premises were truly shocking in their glibness and their evidence of a lack of sincere reflection. As if he first figured out what he wanted the experiment to show, and then created the data to fit it. Ironic for an appeal to the value of science in morality.

Plus, uncertainty doesn't leave us powerless against evil. We can fight against evil as proud idiots, uncertain that what we're fighting against is evil at all, but with an acceptance that we just don't like it and a willingness to fight it on that basis.

Anonymous said...

Katherine Calkin,

If he assumed the values of the Enlightenment, how can Sam Harris hope to evaluate the claims of those who reject Enlightenment morality - like practically every 'problem group' he referenced who reject the Enlightement axiom that maximal human welfare is the goal of morality.

If you embrace the Enlightenment (which I of course do), then Harris's conclusions are easy. The problem is that it's a big step from accepting that as an axiom that works for us, to insisting that that's a universal truth for all people at all times.

Sam said...

Freddie,

You've got a lot of courage to take on Sam Harris, one of the New Atheists' Gods.

And as expected the true believing New Atheists -- about as angry and arrogant a group as there is -- have attacked and insulted you.

It's frustrating to read their comments. They are so convinced of their own righteousness, most don't seem even capable of responding to what you said.

Of course you are right. It should be obvious that atheism requires a leap of faith as much as any other belief system.

But just as religious fanatics are incapable of even considering the possibility that God doesn't exist, New Atheists seem completely incapable of considering the limits of their ability to know.

Thanks for having the courage to point it out.

Jefferson Smith said...

Anonymous at 4:34/4:38:

I didn't hear Harris demanding that societies pursue "maximal" human welfare. He is arguing that it's possible to recognize some things that are clearly anti- human welfare, but presumably there would still be room for trade-offs in which, for instance, we agreed to reject and resist Pol Pot's approach while still allowing that a given community might choose to sacrifice some degree of material well-being in pursuit of spiritual or other goals. To refer again to Harris's analogy with nutrition: We can agree, for good scientific reasons, that spicing our own or others' food with arsenic is clearly something to avoid, even as we make different choices about how high a priority to place on a healthy diet. Some people will go for "maximal" healthfulness, but many others will trade off some healthfulness in return for other values (like convenience, or cooking in their received ethnic style, or indulging a taste for McDonald's french fries). The recognition of a scientific basis for seeing some things as positively harmful does not require "maximal" commitment to the opposite.

Simon said...

Evolution isn't "random and directionless." That isn't the only alternative to "directed by an exterior intelligence."

Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker puts it all quite clearly: the principle he's trying to express is reflected in the book's title.

This is where evolutionary theory is laid out. You can still argue against it after reading this book, but please, please don't attempt to do so while displaying such colossal ignorance as you're currently showing, of what evolutionary theory claims and what its proponents believe.

Freddie said...

One thing that's cool about the Internet is that commenters have a way of proving your point when they try to dispute it.

Michael Bacon said...

Hee hee. I'm not sure I can go with you on the last paragraph, that Harris' ladder ultimately ends in fascism, but the rest of it is great. (In order for it to end in fascism, the New Atheists would have to convince people to act politically, instead of yelling at people electronically. This is largely the same reason why the libertarians are batty but harmless.)

I hadn't stumbled across that bit of Nietzsche, and really enjoyed reading it. (I think many of your dissenting commenters might have a better understanding of where you were going with it had they stopped to read it.) I don't have much to add, other than that I want a "Another senseless tragedy that could have been avoided through constructivism" button on Facebook. And Blogspot comments. And Digg. And...

Troy said...

Someone sounds self-conscious about going into the humanities rather than the sciences.

This is the second time I've read your blog. It isn't easy as you tend to contradict yourself in nearly every paragraph. You also seem to have a soft spot for self-aggrandizing behavior. That's rather ironic since that seems to be your chief complaint about Harris.

What you fail to recognize is that, for many, what you have called 'the last dogma' is irrelevant. They (we) have recognized this phenomenon and moved on. As you say, the rent must be paid.

If you find it easy to dismiss Copernicus and Darwin with little more than "well...I guess I can't speak to that" it shouldn't surprise you that others will find it remarkably easy to dismiss your name-dropping critique of positivism.

Freddie said...

One thing that's cool about the Internet is that commenters have a way of proving your point when they try to dispute it.

Dave said...

Dear Freddie,

You write:

"One thing that's cool about the Internet is that commenters have a way of proving your point when they try to dispute it."

Could you elaborate? You made numerous points. Surely you don't think the ensuing discussion established all your claims.

In particular, could you comment on the following problem:

You claim, with epistemic authority (or certainty or whatever you want to call it), that Harris' view leads to fascism or something like it. You also say that no one can be an epistemic authority (or certain). How is this not self-refuting? How is it skepticism?

Perhaps that prohibition on blatant self-contradiction is one of those parts of enlightenment thinking Nietzsche overturned.

Freddie said...

I have made no claims with epistemic certainty; far from it. Which you could see if you were actually reading something, rather than reading in a peculiar shorthand. The argument from self-refutation depends upon taking exactly the attitude towards truth that I am not willing to operate under. If you can find a place where I said "it is objectively true that there is no objective truth," indeed, that would be a problem. But I've said no such thing.

More to the point-- you sound scared; many of these comments do. The anger that a post such as this engenders has a beautifully descriptive power, and the attitude expressed in comments such as these, when taken with the post itself, a brilliant symmetry. Reflect.

Vidoqo said...

So, I think the thesis is basically that we should always be skeptical of our own certainty because of the limitations of consciousness.

That's true as far as it goes. But it is also untrue as far as it goes. The main problem I have with the essay is that without examples with which to work, it is difficult to agree or disagree with any of it.

The problem lies in describing exactly what types of certainty we are talking about. Some things we can be very certain of, and others we cannot. Thus how much confidence we have in any given thing is contextual. But what matters is the epistemological tools we use to determine how much certainty there exists, and how adequate they are to the task.

For instance, I know to a high degree of certainty that if I punch my neighbor in the face, he will experience pain, as I have a high degree of experiential as well as objective data that tells me this will be so.

Yet I have very little certainty that he will mind if I knock on his door at 8am instead of 9am. People wake at various hours in the morning. However if I knock on his door at 3am I can very confident I will bother him. Very few people wake that early.

I think what worries so many about post-modernism is not when it is a serious and precise philosophical discussion of why epistemology matters, but when it is a way of thinking about the world that seeks to diminish epistemology. What this often results in is a sort of selfish fealty to whatever passion one might currently be feeling.

We find this all over the political religious, and cultural spectrum. As a liberal, I've found this frequently in discussions with conservatives. Trying to get to the root of why they believe what they believe, which somewhat by definition entails an appeal to tradition, the ultimate answer is often, "Well, I don't know". For instance, when asked about the conservative emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility, and where it might come from aside from genetic and social determinism, the answer is a simple shrug of the shoulders. Yet trillions of dollars of social policy are at stake! No matter how I try and make my case, no matter how many studies I cite or arguments I present, a simple shrug of the shoulders can wash it all away.

Now, I'm not sure what I was dealing with was a conscious invocation of post-modernism. But I was certainly dealing with an argument that gets much of its strength from a social tradition that encourages the embrace of appeals to emotion rather than reason. The tradition is obviously old - vastly more so than our traditions of science and reason. The most obvious reason for this is that the epistomological tools of science and reason were not readily available. Yet to the extent that they now are, I see no reason why we should be afraid to use them.

Now, how much confidence we have in our ability to use science and reason to get at truth will always vary. Experience also tells us that we overestimate its authority at our peril. But this is at least as true as when we underestimate it. The dangers of relying on things other than science and reason are far greater.

Yet while compromise is in order, the trick is in knowing what we know, and where to place our confidence. Science has an excellent mechanism for doing this in the most objective and efficient way: consensus. Due to the degree of complexity and specialization involved in scientific progress, professional consensus is integral to the scientific process. Were any inaccuracies allowed to corrupt the process, they could not linger long for subsequent results would be unrepeatable. In this way, scientific progress itself demands a high level of objective honesty. Consensus of course, can always be wrong. But not for very long, and it is no more susceptible to error than nonscientific reasoning.

Vidoqo said...

What matters in all of this is context. Scientific reasoning is not a dogmatic belief that science will always provide the answers we seek - but rather that scientific results should be taken very seriously, and should at a very minimum be held as the gold standard in knowing truth. This does not mean that results are not open to interpretation, and that scientific inquiry can't be used to draw incorrect inferences. But we should not be afraid to embrace scientific results that add to our sum of knowledge, especially when they appear to contradict our prior assumptions.

More and more, it has become the case that expert opinion must be relied upon to make judgments on important issues. Post-modernism, while a bright reminder to always remain skeptical of our sources of knowledge, must not in skepticism of things he isn't comfortable knowing allow man to substitute his own lack of knowledge for the combined wisdom of his much more able peers. This is a difficult and humbling place to find one's self in to be sure. But we can no longer conceive of ourselves as geocentric arbiters of all that is true. Instead we must seek to strengthen those institutions of society - be they government or academic - that ensure that the expertise is not only broad and robust, but accountable and self-critical. For it will be these institutions that we entrust with our continuing knowledge.

Troy said...

My comment in response to your ad hominem appears to have been lost to the ether. Vidogo was far more eloquent and expressed himself at greater length, anyhow. Particularly this:

"No matter how I try and make my case, no matter how many studies I cite or arguments I present, a simple shrug of the shoulders can wash it all away."

This would be why many find critiques of post-modernism so appealing, including myself.

Michael Bacon said...

It may be an appealing critique of post-modernism, but it's exceptionally lazy.

What people generally call post-modernism, while it has been roundly abused as a "you can't know anything, so give up and drink beer!" philosophy, is not a call for ignorance or abandonment of research; it is a call for greater epistemologocal rigor. There are plenty of ways to untie that knot that don't require a stampede back to vulgar positivism, including but not limited to my favorite, constructivism.

When used appropriately, the post-modern critique doesn't invalidate all science, but it makes science better. This is the problem with Harris that Freddie is trying to point out: he's making fundamental philosophical blunders that make his points invalid.

Really -- go read the Nietzsche piece and try to get that. And do point out where Freddie is engaging in ad hominem attacks. (Hint: "You're argument is crap" is not ad hominem.)

Eamus Catuli said...

When used appropriately, the post-modern critique doesn't invalidate all science, but it makes science better. This is the problem with Harris that Freddie is trying to point out: he's making fundamental philosophical blunders that make his points invalid.

But, Michael Bacon, could it be that Sam Harris isn’t attacking THAT “post-modern critique,” but rather a different idea (I don’t recall that he uses the term “post-modern”) that holds that calling something a cultural tradition exempts it from all criticism? Because that certainly is a widespread view in some academic circles.

More to the point-- you sound scared; many of these comments do. The anger that a post such as this engenders has a beautifully descriptive power, and the attitude expressed in comments such as these, when taken with the post itself, a brilliant symmetry. Reflect.

Now there’s some powerful intellectual defensiveness. Not likin’ the substantive criticisms, eh, Freddie boy? Friendly tip: dismissing critics instead of replying to them makes YOU look scared, not them.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, Moral and Happy, huh? Or, put another way, Vain, Dogmatic and Delusional. This is what you value in humans? After rightly criticizing our self-help book culture, you then praise man's search for happiness. And what is morality if not the betterment of self and society. Yet you then dismiss ideas of progress. And what is more beautiful than overcoming past depredations?

Troy said...

@Michael Bacon -

As Eamus notes above, "You sound scared" is not an argument. It is a personal attack. There are others both in the essay and in Freddie's comments. You don't need to look too hard. It's likely Freddie will refer to this post and say "you sound angry" as if that statement springs from a deep well of wisdom, too.

Getting on with things:

In my post I referred to Vidoqo's post. While that might reflect laziness on my part, your failure to read or address anything he says reflects exceptional laziness on your part, since reading the four sentences that constituted the entirety of my post would have led you back to his.

I also have some bad news for you: "On Truth and Lies" is news to very few thinking people. I haven't seen evidence that you 'get' it any more than I do. I would add that, though anecdotal, Nietzsche's own life doesn't serve to illustrate the triumph of the intuitive man.

Good night, all. Here's hoping Andrew will link less to this blog and more to TED.

Eamus Catuli said...

To be clear, it was Freddie who said his critics sounded scared, not Michael Bacon. I was replying to both Michael and Freddie in the same post; my apologies for not indicating that. Freddie really surprises me; most bloggers would kill for this level of discussion in his comments, I think, but he just sneers at it. Apparently he has no interest in engaging critics on substance -- I guess because he's so certain he's right. Pretty good irony, that.

Matunos said...

Hmm... where to begin here. Well, several of the other comments here adequately defend Harris against DeBoer's attacks, so I think I'll dispense with that.

DeBoer adequately foreshadows the main flaws with his argument with his smarmy comments about the TED conferences. I think I make the safe assumption that Mr. Deboer was not writing his paragraphs from some malnourished, impoverished, developing country in the midst of civil war or the aftermath of natural disaster. Indeed, I often wonder how anyone who puts such weight on the concerns of the least among the world is able to even get out of bed in the morning. To throw out such a ridiculous trope is not only uncalled for, it is hypocritical. You know who else relied on emotional but lazy rhetoric? Nazis.

DeBoer says he distrusts practicality as a cardinal value (or at least, those who believe in such, for which I can't find a difference). Instead, he says he favors "those who take as their goals to be beautiful, to be moral, and to be happy."

One wonders if Mr. DeBoer came up with that while visiting war-torn Somalia. At any rate, it's begging the question. The whole point of Harris' talk is to assert that there are facts that can inform how and why people form their notions of beauty, morality and happiness.

One can agree or disagree with Harris' assertion. But to on the one hand disagree with it, and on the other hand, extol the very subjective properties as the the preferred goals of humans seems to this reader to be self-contradictory. How can he know who fits the criteria (and thus, who to favor)? What does it mean that someone makes "beauty" their goal in life, if we can't make any agreement whatsoever on what is beautiful? How would a person set morality as a goal if they can't distinguish moral behavior from immoral behavior? How can someone meet the goal of living happily if we don't have any notion of what happiness means?

I'm not sure what Mr. DeBoer fears so much. That an oligarchy of Sam Harrises will illegitimately appeal to authority to impose their own subjective values on the rest of us? Well, I, for one, fail to see how that differs much from the present state of religiosity. And for those who have cast off the mantle of religiosity, how much more difficult should it be to spot invalid claims to scientific authority?

Or is DeBoers afraid, as I suspect, that Sam Harris is actually right? That human values can be correctly deduced, at least in part, to verifiable (and falsifiable) factual claims about the world? Is he afraid that policies based on such findings won't have to be imposed because they will logically inform their own implementation? If this is the case, it would seem Mr. DeBoers is deeply unsatisfied with the notion that the keys to his satisfaction might one day be surmised. Worry not, good sir. I'm sure science is working on a way to assuage your fears in perfect alignment with your notions of beauty, morality and happiness.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia. I quite like the work of Sam Harris, especially his spot on critique of right wing, power seeking religionists in the USA--his Open Letter.

Sam promotes the Reason Project.

As do dim-witted right-wing religionists who are also very big on reason (Stand To Reason - Let Us Reason - Reasonable Faith) --at least when it suits their power-seeking agendas.

The Wedge strategy anyone!

But what is the last dogma?

Dogmatic religionism is bigger and stronger than ever, especially in the USA. I came across your site via a highly obnoxious right-wing religionist blog. A blog that absolutely stinks with its own obnoxious self-appointed self-righteousness---while pretending to possess the Truth, and simultaneously dismissing EVERY other perspective, including those of all other Faith Traditions.

Because their church is the only source of truth and "salvation" in the world. All other traditions are thus full of relativistic errors, and thus need to be converted to OUR one true way.

le_sacre said...

It becomes such a chore to read these types of things, but even skimming, one notices that the post and comments diverge into at least two populations that differ in their tactics and even in their core beliefs about how "discussion" works, which may conveniently stem from different approaches to the Certainty Problem.

We almost all readily accept that nothing we think or perceive is trustworthy (apart from those who subscribe to proofs or divine intuitions), but that we nonetheless still have to navigate the world somehow, and it's a world where basic causality seems to hold up quite well to our untrustworthy, subjective scrutiny. The scientific method (which, being grounded in the simplest of logic, is about as a priori a scheme as possible) offers the most efficient tool for that practical navigation, since it's designed to foster doubt and reduce bias while incrementally approaching greater confidence about the reliability and objective accuracy of observations and relations. The frequent alternative in debating circles seems to be to wave one's hands about, rhetorically speaking, until one stumbles upon an arrangement of sufficiently vague or convoluted vocabulary that point-by-point refutation is too tedious or thankless to pursue. This is what I recall of Sullivan's multi-missive exchange with Harris on the general topic of religious faith, in which Harris writes like a scientist and Sullivan writes like a lyricist butterfly of some sort. After a while, both sides (if they're civil and less than inhumanly patient) tend to decide they're talking past each other and quit. It reminds me of what used to happen in grad school sometimes when science and humanities students collided.

But beyond this usual frustrating divide, there is some very rich irony going on here that even a skimmer can enjoy, such as simply claiming that others' rebuttals really prove your own case, while not engaging on any of their actual points and simultaneously calling these opponents "scared." Several of those points you dismissed looked pretty sound to me, by the way, but then, I'm the sort who has pretty narrow confidence intervals on my confidence intervals, and am thus hopelessly mired in reality (in addition to being scared, arrogant and angry).

Anyway, Harris's TED point does seem quite hazy to me, but I just get so riled up when I read someone saying that religion's great contribution to society has been humility. (Or a random commenter stating that atheists have faith and worship Harris/Dawkins as deities.) The whole business really does seem worth thinking about though, since it does feel like there should be some logically justifiable way of discouraging female enslavement and genital mutilation, for example.

Freddie said...

I have posted a reply to the typical cliches that have popped up in here recently:

http://lhote.blogspot.com/2010/03/commenter-reading-comprehension.html

Dave said...

Dear Freddie,

I am not scared, but so what if I were? Personal facts about me are largely irrelevant to the issue at hand. I believe in objective truths. I think you do as well. I am just trying to show you what you already believe.

You write: "Suppose there is, actually, a transcendent morality, a right and wrong that is capital-t True, that is non-contingent, not temporal, that applies to each and every person and situation: then totalitarianism must become the truth of man"

Could you explain how the claim that something necessarily follows from something else is not a claim to objective epistemic authority? Here is why I think it is. This isn't a hedged claim. You say, if X is true, then Y MUST be true. This is a claim with a very strong modality. Now you don't think X is true and I am not criticizing you for that. I am interested in the connection between the two ideas. You seem to be quite sure that the connection exists (and is as strong as you say it is). The connection isn't stated with epistemic modesty, or humility. You state that the connection exists with 100%, absolute certainty.

My question is this: how can you sensibly call this skepticism. This is a fair question. All I want is an explanation.

Dave said...

By the way, thanks for responding.

Freddie said...

Dave, please consider the post that I have linked to as a response.

jojo79 said...

I could not even watch this clip through, and its hard to explain why, especially as I am somewhat less well read than most people posting on here!

I guess it hurt my brain to see a man getting rounds of applause for making points to show that some moral views were more 'right'/'scientific' than others, to a room full of people who no doubt shared his version of morality in the first place! Seemed a bit egotistical and self fulfilling...

Anonymous said...

Some helpful hints at directing you through your blog project.

I think you are confusing a lot of important elements that pertain to your argument. First, you are conflating the perceptions of physical science to the role of academia. Social science, philosophy, and the humanities would scoff at suggestions made my Sam Harris. His poor intellectualism fails to even make it into fringe academic debates as it is naive to the existing literature and opposing arguments. Second, I would suggest reading about social constructivism (Berger, Heidegger, Schultz, and many others). You ignore a lot of important critiques and things that have already been said, which would make your argument a lot stronger.

Third, take a closer look at Nietzsche. Your interpretation seems a little sketchy.

Fourth, consider, as you make your epistemological argument, what ontology are you also accepting. Is this contradictory to your argument?

Finally, your post-materialism critique lacks a clear understanding. If you are going to redefine post-materialism that is OK, but then define what you mean.

Sam Harris (someone I have never heard of before your blog) appears to be a pop-culture icon and does not represent anything within the academia, or political rule.

I think you have a lot of interesting ideas and passion, but if you are going to make such wide scale critiques about academia or politics be aware of them and what they are actually saying. On the other hand, if you are going to critique pop-culture keep your argument about pop-culture. Ask yourself, what is the phenomena you see arising in pop-culture and why does it happen their and not other places? But do not conflate your observations, and be wary of what you are attempting to compare and say.

(Granted, there is an intersection between pop-culture and intellectualism. However, be aware of this intersection and both sides if you are going to exam particular phenomena within.)

Again, I appreciate your attempt, but push you to think and read further.

A Professor of Politics, USA

K-Tron said...

By the way Freddie.

There is something that Matunos pointed out in a comment above that I think deserves a little more attention. A Himalayan hypocrisy looms over your first paragraph. Here you are kicking dirt at TED conference attendees, asking them to hold "conferences or similar in a Brazilian favela, or village in Haiti or Somalia."
and informing us that one cannot " meaningfully come to understand human progress without understanding the depths of human misery".

...And you are writing this from where? Baghdad? Darfur? Oh. You are writing this from a place of comfort in the west, and placing a link -right next to the above passage- to your Amazon.com wish list, which includes such important survival equipment as an external USB cd burner and a book of 'Suicide Girls' erotica. No doubt your readers will be sure to think of you if they have anything left after buying mosquito nets for families in malaria plagued west Africa.

Freddie said...

.And you are writing this from where? Baghdad? Darfur? Oh. You are writing this from a place of comfort in the west, and placing a link -right next to the above passage- to your Amazon.com wish list, which includes such important survival equipment as an external USB cd burner and a book of 'Suicide Girls' erotica. No doubt your readers will be sure to think of you if they have anything left after buying mosquito nets for families in malaria plagued west Africa.

This is nonsensical.

K-Tron said...

This is nonsensical.

Are you quite certain about that?

Freddie said...

OH MY GOD! YOU HAVE PIERCED THE VEIL! You cracked the code and shone the light in my eyes! I'm going to embrace Allah and marry Republican. Thanks, man, I was blind, and now I see.

Arun said...

...that if we are indeed a cosmic accident, the result of the directionless and random process of evolution, then it makes little sense to imagine that we are capable of ordering the world around us, beyond the limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves.

Well, no matter how we arose - we are limited. If we're not limited, I challenge you to produce the proof of the Riemann Hypothesis now, or else produce a counter-example.

Once you accept that we are limited, then the extent to which we are able to order the world is something to be determined empirically. We just sunk $10 billion in the Large Hadron Collider in that quest.

And the "if...." part of your statement is utterly irrelevant. It could just as well read:

"...if pigs have wings (or, equally, if pigs don't have wings), then it makes little sense to imagine that we are capable of ordering the world around us, beyond the limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves. "

Charles said...

"This has always been to me the simplest step in the world, from the first two beliefs the the third, from the collapse of geocentrism and creationism to the collapse of objective knowing."

The best response to this:

"Skepticism and science work in spite of the flaws in human cognition, not because there are no flaws. The scientific method is the way it is to overcome the failures of cognition."

Claims about the physical world produced by scientific processes are not truth claims of the kind implied by the term "objective knowledge." You've read plenty of philosophy. Read more on the philosophy of science. Scientific claims are tentative. Science does not seek final answers, perhaps (or perhaps not!) because there are no final answers. I don't see the disagreement between you and good scientists. Moral realism is a school within ethics, not within scientific disciplines like neurobiology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology which seek to understand (make useful models) the mind, and the processes that make cognition possible. Science makes models. It tells us what *may* be going on in a manner consistent with experimental data. It does not tell us, and nothing can ever tell us, what really is going on.

Analytic statements and tautologies can be given a probability of correspondence with truth of 1. All other statements are uncertain and have a probability of correspondence with truth between 0 and 1. Logical contradictions have a probability of correspondence with truth of 0. Science works within this kind of Bayesian epistemology that proceeds from a kind of skepticism very similar to that which you praise here. In other words, science does not give us final answers. All knowledge is a work in progress. It may be charitable to claim that this is what Harris was getting at when he said that a greater scientific understanding of mental processes may give us insight into the conditions that promote the well-being of animals with human minds, but that is what I took away from his talk. He is not arguing for moral realism, he is arguing for scientific morality. I think he would agree with you that Nazis are not objectively evil in any sense, because there is no objective evil. But the Nazi programme may lead to more suffering than other systems of organizing human behavior towards other humans. I guess I just don't see the big controversy. There will be many people who are certain that they are privy to objective knowledge, and I will happy argue with them for the skepticism which you spoke of, but I don't think that Harris is arguing for such certainty.

Christopher Carr said...

I believe the fundamental problem at stake is Harris's misunderstanding of what science and morality are. Because I believe that science is a process for maintaining an appropriate balance between rationality and intuition, with the ultimate goal of explaining phenomena, and morality is a process for maintaining an appropriate balance between action and inaction, with the ultimate goal of minimizing harm, I think it is doubtful that science or morality will ever be more than imperfect approximations; yet I must now venture out of my cave, and it serves me to choose an answer that is immediately applicable, although I can never be certain that this answer is right.

http://www.theinductive.com/articles/2010/3/30/an-uncertain-defense-of-deboer.html

Nick said...

Do you think it's legitimate to appeal to a moral principle (anti-totalitarianism) in order to refute Moral Realism? That places you in a highly unenviable circle.

dictateursanguinaire said...

I'm coming across this just from reading through your blog since it's so well written and unrelenting in its criticism and this just totally, totally nails it. I'm generally a person of the left but for some reason the TED Talks/microloans/social entrepreneurship/New Atheist thing just drives me completely nuts and this is a great(and fair) slam on that. "Human Achievement Yuppies" is a perfect encapsulation