The Ted Bundy of String Theory March 23, 2010

The Ted Bundy of String Theory

Sam Harris‘ talk at TED was just released and you can see some of the material he’ll be writing about in his new book — The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values, which will be released October 5th. The thesis is that science can indeed answer moral questions.

I wasn’t really into it for the first half, but it got good (for me) around the 9:48 mark.

There are some really fascinating things he discusses, such as the question of whether a Muslim man who wants the women in his life to wear veils loves his daughters as much as his sons — and how brain scans could soon tell us the answer to that. And how even that scan could have a loophole…

Certainly, if we could show that science can lead to positive ethics, it would take away one of the biggest reasons people think they need religion.

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  • I feel like he almost nailed it, except that he blended two points.

    In physics, the first question is, “Do we care about making accurate predictions?” That’s a preference. The second question is, “What models help us do that?” That’s entirely empirical.

    With social policy, it’s, “Do we care about building societies where people are happy, safe, and able to self-actualize?”

    And then, “What policies help us do that?”

    Splitting these into distinct issues really solves the problem of relativism. If someone’s trying to accomplish the same goals as we are, then our differences are testable, and people can be empirically wrong.

    If they aren’t trying to accomplish the same thing as we are, then we can dismiss everything they say out of hand.

    Someone who starts by saying, “Actually, I don’t care about predictions,” has no place in a discussion about physics.

  • Ziggy

    Harris seems to have misunderstood the question. He starts with an a priori value (we want to prevent suffering and promote happiness/wellbeing) and then uses science to try to plot a course of action. Moral values are not about what actions we should take, they are about what outcomes we should desire. Science can help us determine the former, but not the latter. It seems that what he did was look at religious discussions of morality, noted that they revolve around rules, and decided that moral values are about making decisions. In actuality, the value in the religious case is “We should do what God says” and the value in the secular (read, sane) case is “we should do right by other conscious beings.” The value seemed so obvious to him that he never considered that other people might not share it, perhaps? That seems to be an error common to religious arguments.

  • Pseudonym

    I’m impressed. This is the most insightful thing I think I’ve ever seen Sam Harris say, and not just because I’ve been saying similar things for years.

  • And yet, as he identifies exemplars for the ethic that would come forth from an entirely scientific morality, he highlights 1) the Buddha and 2) the Dalai Lama. Two good folks, to be sure, but neither root their ethics in rationality.

    It was an interesting talk, in part because it moved away from the compulsive deconstruction of much of neoatheism and pitched out something that’s far more positive…and I say that as a person of faith.

  • Aj

    I agree with Harris that even religious morality has historically aimed at well-being not obedience. Even when religion seems to be making its best stab at destroying the possibility for well-being, it’s concerned with eternal suffering after death or a vengeful god. Which is the only way they could justify creating such suffering in life. The commandments may be about obedience, but their motivation is to not piss off God, which is a concern for well-being, because God is a bit of a prick in the narrative around them.

    Morality is basically the discussion of general well-being, like health is the discussion of physical and mental well-being. Harris acknowledges that you can’t derive ought from science, even though he said this quite clearly, many people have found it impossible to receive this point. It’s as if anything he says that is counter to their preconceived notions of him comes out as noise.

    Harris is biased towards eastern religious culture, it’s not strange for him to use to examples from that. The audience is probably biased the same way. I don’t think the Dalai Lama is the epitome of goodness, religion poisons his views on abortion, sex, and freedom. To be fair to him, among religious leaders he’s probably one of the best. He probably had to pick someone like the Dalai Lama, otherwise people would accuse him of all sorts of things.

  • Casper

    I should say that the final things he talked about were very important in putting everything into perspective. One man’s love or ecstasy does not make it morally right to kill others. A great talk, I was impressed and totally agree with him.

  • I’m really excited about these new ideas from Sam Harris. I look foward to seeing his book.
    Sam clearly says that we *can* derive ‘ought’ (morals) from ‘is’ (science). He achieves this by equating morality with the concern for conscious suffering. (See this part of his website for his detailed line of reasoning).

    In the style that Richard H. used in his post here, if someone comes to the table and says “Actually, I don’t care about conscious suffering”, then it seems to me that he has no place in a discussion about morality.

    Fine, you may care more about people’s ability to ‘self-actualize’ than their feeling of safety (although I think these are very intertwined issues). But at least you are starting from this common basis from which it is possible to converge as the evidence comes in (from study of the brain etc.)

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