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About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, January 17, 2014
Rationally Speaking cartoon: Sam Harris
This is in response to the latest Sam Harris, ahem, I don't even know what to call it, at this point... At any rate, I figured it wasn't really worth 2000 words. (Though, come to think of it, since a picture is worth 1000 words, the cartoon below amounts to an 8000 words commentary. Hmm...)
Posted by Unknown at 7:00 AM
Labels: cartoon, Massimo Pigliucci, Sam Harris, science and philosophy
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You turned the argument of the scientist around nicely, but I don't think it really does Sam Harris justice.
I think that what he is really arguing against is the idea that scientists don't get to opine on certain issues because there are non-overlapping magisteria. He is arguing that there is rationality and irrationality, and rational arguments are universally applicable.
I don't think he would necessarily disagree with your argument that everything is philosophy (since he is arguing for relaxing the distinction between science and philosophy), but he would probably prefer to distinguish between rigorous analytic philosophy and the more wishy-washy continental kinds of philosophy or theology that don't get us anywhere. In his view, what he calls the "scientific attitude" distinguishes the former from the latter.
I think that on this question the difference between you is probably semantic. You each prefer different terms to describe this kind of attitude, and I might even agree with you that Harris's choice is unhelpfully confusing. But that's a distraction from his main point, which is that the rigorous application of reason is always applicable and desirable no matter what problem domain is being considered.
So, if your main point of contention is what to call an attitude of open-mindedness, intellectual honesty, reason and rigour, what would you propose in favour of Harris's problematic "scientific attitude"?
First, I think you're being charitable to Sam.Delete
Second, if he really thinks that, he needs to read more philosophy ... maybe epistemology? :)
>>I think that what he is really arguing against is the idea that scientists don't get to opine on certain issues because there are non-overlapping magisteria.Delete
When people say that scientists don't get to opine on 'non-scientific' issues (like ethics or politics or literature), they aren't literally saying that scientists are forbidden from talking about these things. I think what they're trying to say is that their scientific expertise doesn't grant them any special epistemic authority on these matters. For example, if I make a comment about the composition of matter, and a physicist tells me I'm wrong and that science says X about the composition of matter, I'll probably think, "Okay, he knows a lot more about this than I do, so I should probably defer to his opinion on this issue - at least for now." But if we're having a conversation about, say, the ethics of the death penalty, I don't grant the physicist any *extra* credibility on the matter simply in virtue of the fact that he's a scientist. Of course, he's allowed to give his opinion like everyone else, but being a scientist doesn't grant him any special status.
Unfortunately, a lot of people follow up this thought with the idea that priests/theologians/religious leaders *are* epistemic authorities on ethical matters. That is, they defer to the advice of religious leaders on ethical questions the same way that I defer to the physicist's opinion on the composition of matter. And that's problematic.
I think you're right that I'm being charitable to Sam, because I think the caricature of the scientist is perhaps a bit unfair. Please don't take me to mean that I see no problems with what he's saying.
I think I mostly agree with you. To some extent, I'm playing devil's advocate because I don't think Harris was fairly represented in the cartoon.
>but being a scientist doesn't grant him any special status.<
Well, not simply being a scientist. But Harris's point is that certain scientists with relevant expertise may be able to decide certain questions not typically considered scientific. This is most clearly illustrated in The Moral Landscape.
He's wrong but in a way only on a technicality. *If* we all signed up to utilitarianism (which as far as I'm concerned is the only game in town with regard to resolving moral dilemmas), then which outcomes cause less suffering is in principle at least vaguely empirical (vague because "suffering" is left without a precise definition or means of quantification). In principle, it just might be possible to settle some disputes with research (again, once we agree on some form of utilitarianism first). For example, the debate on the death penalty might be settled (for utilitarians) given sufficient evidence that it succeeded or failed in preventing murders.
This is not a case of science answering the question without philosophy, because we first need to sign up to utilitarianism. But then, since Harris is arguing to break down the borders between science and philosophy, that's probably not a problem for him.
Now, while I don't think this is much of a revelation, and I think there are bound to be practical difficulties, I think it's not entirely unfair to interpret Harris as making the point that we should not dismiss scientific evidence a priori in debating what some might consider to be non-scientific questions.
I think a recent comment by Crescendo on Massimo's post on gay adoption exemplifies the position Harris is arguing against. Crescendo commented expressing reservations about justifying gay adoption with science, as it ought not to be a scientific question. Harris's article can be charitably interpreted as an argument against this kind of statement, and if so I don't think he's far wrong.
Unfortunately, a lot of people follow up this thought with the idea that priests/theologians/religious leaders *are* epistemic authorities on ethical matters. That is, they defer to the advice of religious leaders on ethical questions the same way that I defer to the physicist's opinion on the composition of matter. And that's problematic.Delete
Many of those religious leaders are - wait for it - philosophers.
It really seems that the only way it's 'problematic' is insofar as those religious leaders come to different conclusions than is desired. Which, I think, is what's actually problematic - trying to short-circuit the idea of rational disagreement by way of gerrymandering the intellectual map.
>>I think a recent comment by Crescendo on Massimo's post on gay adoption exemplifies the position Harris is arguing against. Crescendo commented expressing reservations about justifying gay adoption with science, as it ought not to be a scientific question. Harris's article can be charitably interpreted as an argument against this kind of statement, and if so I don't think he's far wrong.Delete
Actually, I think what Crescendo's argument amounts to is a denial of consequentialism. As Massimo pointed out later, there are some moral questions where Crescendo's attitude is reasonable - like the question of whether women should be able to vote. If you went about justifying womens' suffrage based on empirical studies, I would probably say something like, "Um, I think you're missing the deeper point that women have a fundamental right to vote, regardless of the consequences of that policy." Obviously, this attitude presupposes some kind of non-consequentialist theory.
Now, as Massimo also pointed out, the relevance of empirical data is going to vary on a case-by-case basis depending on the moral question at hand. Massimo wisely pointed out that the relevant difference between the adoption case and, say, gay marriage, had to do with whether there were non-consenting parties involved. Again though, this seems to be implicitly appealing to a non-utilitarian principle (e.g., something about respecting the autonomy of adults).
I'm not arguing against utilitarianism. I'm just saying that Cresendo's attitude doesn't reflect a *general* denial of the relevance of scientific information for moral or political questions. It just reflects that he's probably not a utilitarian.
>>It really seems that the only way it's 'problematic' is insofar as those religious leaders come to different conclusions than is desired.Delete
I certainly think that's problematic, but what I also think is problematic is the assumption that someone is an epistemic authority on moral matters *in virtue of* being a religious figure. A person might seek council from a really liberal priest who I happen to totally agree with, but I still object to the assumption that the man is a moral authority *because* he is religious. In contrast, if a person seeks council from the priest simply because the priest seems like a generally wise and thoughtful man who thinks about these issues clearly and carefully, then I have no objection to that - just as I wouldn't object to someone seeking moral advice from a thoughtful philosophy professor, or physicist, or librarian, or plumber, etc.
"Actually, I think what Crescendo's argument amounts to is a denial of consequentialism."
Perhaps. If so, then perhaps Harris's argument could be taken to be a defense of consequentialism.
I really think his main point is that he doesn't like to be dismissed because he's trying to find empirical answers to philosophical questions. I agree with him to a point - it's not fair to dismiss him out of hand. Where he is incorrect it is sufficient to point out the specific problems with his argument.
Alternatively, how it might go if Sam had a say in the cartoon:ReplyDelete
"Aren't we all suddenly philosophers".
"You mean you'll have to philosophize about the nature of science".
"Yes. The point is that all of these things are part of a coherent and seamless sphere of knowledge. Divisions are arbitrary rather than uncrossable divides into different "magesteria"".
Why not simply call it by what is it, i.e. ratio (=reason)?ReplyDelete
You are of course right, that is the most obvious answer. But I think it has a problem.
The kinds of thinkers I'm singling out as not being rigorous, rational or reasonable (theologians, certain continental philosophers) would probably view themselves as both rational and reasonable, so this term is not sufficiently specific to identify the mindset Harris is advocating. "Analytic" might be better, but I'm not sure that's broad enough.
actually, the few theologians I know personally readily admit that their foundation is non-rational. I don't know any CPs. ;-)
The term scientific would be fine IMO if it was still used in the original "knowledge" sense. (What Massimo termed 'scientia'.) Modern English usage narrowing it down to the empirical is what is causing the discussion in the first place.
You may be right about theologians. However, for many people, "irrational" and "unreasonable" have negative connotations, and so they would not recognise their own thinking processes as such. Conversely, many people take a kind of pride in being "unscientific", going with their gut or what their parents raised them to believe.
So if Harris says "be rational", that's not going to cause much of a stir, because most people think they are rational already. If he says "be scientific", that has more meaning and impact.
I think perhaps the word I'm grasping for is "skeptical". That's probably the word that best describes what Harris is arguing for.
I think that it might be the case that the scientists most receptive to viewing philosophy having its own domain (contra Harris's edge article) are computer scientists. (But then some think computer science is not a science even though 'science' appears in its name and its a somewhat un'natural' science.)ReplyDelete
Um, shouldn't the punchline be "You mean you'll have to philosophize about the nature of PHILOSOPHY"? After all, the Harris character says, "I'll have to think about IT", where "IT" is clearly referencing the definition of *philosophy* that was just offered. So he's thinking (philosophizing) about the nature of philosophy, not science.ReplyDelete
I propose new definitions for both science and philosophy so that we can devote our time to more productive discussions as this is getting rather petty imho. This is just the initial attempt please argue for modification as you see fit.ReplyDelete
Science: I would go with Sam's definition as expressed in his EDGE reply to this year's question.
Philosophy: Are all questions not having any empirical basis. I would put certain subjects that have historically been the purview of philosophy into the science domain. Logic and mathematics are tough calls as to where they would be placed.
Your proposal for defining philosophy would be rejected by half the philosophers of the last century and this one; indeed, by some of the most distinguished, such as W.V.O. Quine.Delete
Harris is back to his old equivocation at the Edge question site. Actually, we don't use the word "religious" the way he says we do. If I applied to be the CEO of a large corporation out of wishful thinking, my buddies wouldn't say "you're always getting religious like that." If me and my friends exclude others, others aren't apt to say about us "they're not really better than us, they're just religious." In Harris's sense of the term, Harris's own claim here is religious, because he wishes people used terms in a way that they don't simply because it would make his intellectual stances more reasonable.ReplyDelete
Although sometimes the demarcations between fields can be too great, there are important differences between the fields we call "scientific" and the ones that use anecdotes and loose-form argumentation. Although I think the scientific fields tend to have stronger truth-claims, the difference is not merely a matter of how rigorous they are; it is also a matter of thinking styles, of approaches to understanding and problem-solving. Just because they both discover truths through reasoning does not mean that the differences between them are illusory.
A fallacy I have repeatedly brought up on Massimo's blog, and one discussed by Nicholas Shackel in his article "The Vacuity of Postmodern Methodology," is to create the illusion that A is B by using the term normally used to refer to A to refer to B. Shackel points out, as an example, that Foucault tries to form some kind of equivalence between the concepts of truth and socially manufactured belief by using the word "truth" to refer to socially manufactured belief. It's a cheap trick, because actually the beliefs held by groups and institutions can be straightforwardly false. But Foucault can't argue this directly, so he just tries to redefine words to avoid the distinction.
If we actually accept Harris's terms, then all religious people are pro-science because they respect truth (religious people believe what they believe is true) and think it is justified for them to believe that. Scientists with solid credentials who are not productive workers would not be scientists because they are bad at thinking about their disciplines. People who think their wives love them when they don't would not be qualitatively different from people who think Jesus exists.
Behind Harris's snobbishness is an undue attachment to the idea that some people just, like, get it, and some just don't, and what some people just get is that, like, reason is good, and others just don't get that. So the distinctions between various styles of thinking, the nuances of how various debates are carried out, and the differences between various forms of poor thinking, are simply distractions from the cosmic battle between people who just get it and people who just don't. And the people who just get it, of course, embrace science (that is, any kind of rational thinking whatsoever!) and religion (which of course is a term just referring to poor thinking).
> You turned the argument of the scientist around nicely, but I don't think it really does Sam Harris justice. <
I think you are taking these cartoons, well, a bit too seriously! I mean, yes, they are supposed to be thought provoking and generate some discussion, but mostly are a relaxing (for me) way to poke a little fun to certain positions or, in this case, people. As you know, I have written extensively (and no doubt will continue to) about every topic I touch on with the cartoons.
> I think that what he is really arguing against is the idea that scientists don't get to opine on certain issues because there are non-overlapping magisteria <
My friend, I think you are being far far too charitable to Harris. This is not at all what he is trying to do, he is on a quest that I can only characterize as epistemologically imperialistic. Of course he's not the only one. Shermer, for instance, comes a close second.
> I don't think he would necessarily disagree with your argument that everything is philosophy <
Than he would be an even lesser thinker than I think he is, since that's not an argument, unless by argument you mean reductio ad absurdum...
> The point is that all of these things are part of a coherent and seamless sphere of knowledge. Divisions are arbitrary rather than uncrossable divides into different "magesteria" <
But they are not, and only someone who has never read a philosophy paper could possibly imagine that what philosophers do is the same sort of thing as what scientists do. I hate to make an argument from personal experience, but I've had the privilege of writing both technical science and technical philosophy papers, and the two couldn't possibly be different or with less overlap, in subject matter, methods, and style.
> Why not simply call it by what is it, i.e. ratio (=reason)? <
Again, because these really are different activities. Yes, of course what we are all striving for is reason. But Harris is purposely using the word "science" here, in part to discard other disciplines, such as philosophy, which he says explicitly in footnotes to The Moral Landscape he finds "only increases the boredom of the universe." What an anti-intellectual jerk.
> shouldn't the punchline be "You mean you'll have to philosophize about the nature of PHILOSOPHY"? <
That's one way to interpret it. Or the Harris character has realized the confusion in his thinking and is going back to the drawing board about his concept of what counts as science. If only real life where as clear cut as cartoons...
> When people say that scientists don't get to opine on 'non-scientific' issues (like ethics or politics or literature), they aren't literally saying that scientists are forbidden from talking about these things. I think what they're trying to say is that their scientific expertise doesn't grant them any special epistemic authority on these matters. <
That's precisely right.
> they defer to the advice of religious leaders on ethical questions the same way that I defer to the physicist's opinion on the composition of matter. And that's problematic <
Problematic is to out it extremely mildly...
> Philosophy: Are all questions not having any empirical basis. <
First, you are conceding far too much to Harris about the definition of science. Second, philosophy is also concern with matters that require factual knowledge (for instance in ethics, or metaphysics), which is why I see it as a field that requires input from science. Moreover, as you point out, math and logic also deal with questions that don't have a necessary empirical basis, and yet math is not philosophy (though logic is).
Now, I have actually proposed a positive move in the past, but got no takers: to re-instate the Latin term Scientia, which has to do with knowledge in the broad sense, and which includes science sensu stricto, philosophy, math and logic. We could then all live happily ever after...
Also, what Joseph said.
"Scientia" probably doesn't get many takers in part because, historically, it carried a lot of rationalist/foundationalist baggage with it. "Scientia" was understood by many philosophers to be something like "demonstrable knowledge from first principles". It was also understood by many philosophers to be concerned with strictly theoretical knowledge, as opposed to practical knowledge (like Harris's plumber). Modern science is in many respects a *rejection* of scientia as the gold-standard of knowledge, since scientists no longer aim for strict demonstrations nor are they so concerned with first principles.Delete
I'm not claiming this was the *only* concept of scientia - I'm just pointing out that bringing back the term isn't very helpful since it too was subject to all sorts of controversy.
"re-instate the Latin term Scientia, which has to do with knowledge in the broad sense, and which includes science sensu stricto, philosophy, math and logic. We could then all live happily ever after..."Delete
So really we're just fighting over whether to call it "science" or "scientia"?
Massimo, you often chant that Harris tries to dismiss the entire field of philosophy, and you've based many of your critiques (many of them ad hominen) on this premise. You've extrapolated some of his criticisms of philosophy, along with his footnote denigrating certain philosophical language, in a way that doesn't actually follow rationally. Your defensiveness on the issue correlates very well with your misinterpretation of his views.Delete
(By the way, in this blog post/comment section) you've incorrectly paraphrased the relevant footnote in the Moral Landscape. Harris does not say that "philosophy increases the boredom of the universe," as you've stated, he says that certain philosophical language "increases the boredom of the universe." As I suspect you care a great deal about the the intricacies of language, I assume that bringing this distinction to your attention will be meaningful and help you re-evaluate your misconception.
Harris has said explicitly and directly, to an audience of thousands of people, that he considers himself a philosopher and that he thinks there are no clear boundaries between philosophy and science. It could not be clearer that Harris considers himself a philosopher in many respects, especially as it relates to rational and evaluative thought. What he has said, is that there are translations of philosophy, both in thought and their manifestation of language, that have very little use, and only obfuscate ethical and moral precepts where we should otherwise be able to clarify
There are many things that could be said (many of which you have) - that Harris's version of philosophy is sloppy, uninformed, or not useful in the ethical and moral sphere. Seems like a reasonable debate we could be have. But to say that Harris is an anti-intellectual that tries to dismiss the entire field of philosophy, while he has directly identified himself a philosopher, is to so irrationally label Harris's mode of thought that we should all worry about how your defensiveness clouds the rationality of your critiques.
Sam Harris: a middlebrow intellectual, with a genius for marketing and self-promotion.ReplyDelete
Not much there, there.
I find a lot to disagree with Sam Harris but not in this essay. Really the only difference between him and you is that he would like to call science what you would like to call scientia. How terrible of him. Are these labelling issues so tremendous a disagreement?ReplyDelete
Alex: yes. The difference between equivocation and clarity is big. Harris is trying to trivialize the difference between fields, types of thinking, and errors in thinking in order to emphasis what he perceives as a generalized war between good thinking and bad thinking. There is no such generalized war; good and bad thinking exist, of course, but they aren't forces unified conceptually, physically, socially, or in any other way. It may not be "terrible" to be intellectually dishonest consistently, but it's pretty bad.Delete
Hm. I cannot actually find the term 'war' in Harris' piece. It seems to me as if rational thinking is important to him and as if he considers irrationality to be harmful, and that might be his motivation. The thing is, so do I. So does, unless the title of this blog is tongue-in-cheek, Massimo Pigliucci. So does hopefully the majority of the readers.Delete
So we all would like people to be more rational, just like Harris. (I would also like Harris to be more rational where is currently paranoid.) No, the difference really seems to be only that he calls science what Massimo calls scientia; guessing here but he would probably call natural science what Massimo calls science.
I agree with you, Alex., and thanks for your post. I am utterly confused over the hostility here against Sam Harris on this issue -- Sam Harris's "science" IS Massimo's "scientia"Delete
Also, Massimo commented:
"Yes, of course what we are all striving for is reason. But Harris is purposely using the word "science" here, in part to discard other disciplines, such as philosophy, which he says explicitly in footnotes to The Moral Landscape he finds "only increases the boredom of the universe." What an anti-intellectual jerk."
Harris holds a degree in philosophy (he must see some value in the discipline). He is not trying to discard philosophy; rather, as I understand him, 'philosophy' doesn't hold the same respected connotations as 'science' currently does in our society. And Harris is trying to have included respectable philosophy (I have a hard time counting much of the work in the philosophy of religion and theology as respectable philosophy) in this term 'science'. If i am grossly misunderstanding Harris's ideas here, then please somebody write out a real argument for me to understand.
Finally, bout that last quote of Harris: can you provide a page number? If I remember correctly (it has been a while), Harris was making a point there about rejecting the endless special terminology used in philosophy. It was a stylistic point where Harris thinks much of philosophy can be stated and argued in common language, if one is careful, without simply referencing abstract and bloated terminology which nobody understands but a select few. If you disagree with this, fine. (I think this was more of a tongue in cheek comment in defense of his own writing style than a major part of his thesis.) But I think it's petty to attack the man over this as "an intellectual asshole." But I don't personally know him--perhaps I am wrong.
* ANTI-intellectual, rather.Delete
Harris writes a coherent and straightforward article about using good reasons (evidence) and logic to evaluate what is true about the universe and what is not. He simplifies and clarifies. Massimo, on the other hand, most of the time obfuscates and makes ideas more complex. It's the difference between the Ptolemy model of the solar system, in which incredibly complicated orbits and patterns where required to explain what was dramatically simplified by the copernican model. It's the ability to simplify but still explain things that tends to be such a powerful indicator of what are good ideas and what are not. Every time Pinker or Harris models things in a simple but clarifying way, Massimo will muddy the water with a Potelmic injection of complicated and unnecessary language. It's not an easy thing to do and it does take a certain amount of intelligence - in the same sense that the Ptolemic model of the solar system was clever and kind of brilliant in many respect. But it was just so much less interesting and useful than what Copernicus did.ReplyDelete
Clarity and simplicity are a good thing if important distinctions aren't boiled away in the process. But that doesn't mean the simplest ideas are the most profound.Delete
Massimo, on the other hand, most of the time obfuscates and makes ideas more complexDelete
And that essentially is ( one of ) the beauty of philosophy - some of the things that appear simple or black or white turn out to not be so - you need philosophy and philosophers for that thing. Harris may simplify to Israel racially profiles Muslims - Israel is successful - Hence profiling is not bad - but any philosopher can poke many holes into his argument (not to mention security experts)
I don't say this to be demeaning but you might consider that you just don't understand what Massimo is talking about. Consider that popular science books are written for eighth graders. If Pinker was really to talk shop, you might find him "Ptolemaic" too. Something to consider.
"Clarity and simplicity are a good thing if important distinctions aren't boiled away in the process. But that doesn't mean the simplest ideas are the most profound."Delete
Using the word "profound" isn't useful or meaningful here. When simple ideas, language, and reason explain something, that simplicity tends to correlate well with a correct or useful model of reality. Or better to say that those ideas tend to be a more "correct" or useful than unnecessarily complex ones. There are methodologies and modes of philosophy which are incredibly useful, which is why they are incorporated into scientific thinking. But there other manifestations of philosophy which introduce unnecessary complexity, which usually results from the reliance (and eventual failure) of language and words to model reality. This is the mode of philosophy which Harris disparages, and the kind that Massimo often introduces. Keep in mind, Harris doesn't think philosophy is useless He has said many times he considers himself a philosopher in many respects, especially as it relates to rational and evaluative thought.
"I don't say this to be demeaning but you might consider that you just don't understand what Massimo is talking about. "Delete
A fair point, and something I try try to conscience of. When I hear a seminar on quantum mechanics, as a non physicist it's hard understand what the hell is going on. But of course it's not because quantum mechanics is a bad model of reality.
On the other hand, I've actually read quite a lot of Pinker's work (publications included), and non of it sounds ptolemaic to my ears...where "ptolemaic" is defined something like unnecessarily complex and/or creating a poor model of reality as a result of the limitations of language.
"Consider that popular science books are written for eighth graders."Delete
There is nothing about writing in simple language that necessitates incomplete or incorrect explanation of ideas that we know correctly model reality, so this concern is somewhat irrelevant. On the contrary, the strength of an idea is usually attested to by the fact that it can be explained in simple and clear language to a wide audience (with obvious exceptions like quantum mechanics, for instance). The Origin of Species would probably be (mostly) intelligible to today's eighth graders. Maybe in 50 years we'll have a simple way of explaining (or writing) about quantum mechanics that is similarly intelligible to eight graders.
>There is nothing about writing in simple language that necessitates incomplete or incorrect explanation of ideas that we know correctly model reality, so this concern is somewhat irrelevant.<
This isn't true with regard to philosophy as in a sense it is about fine points of language. Further, not all knowledge "models reality." You seem to be a very able thinker and writer but you're coming to what Massimo writes about with a lot of questionable assumptions.
"This isn't true with regard to philosophy as in a sense it is about fine points of language."Delete
In some sense, this is actually my point. It's often the case that the unnecessary complexity of philosophy, the type that Harris denigrates, is born because philosophers are not necessarily studying ethics or morality, but the "finer points of language," which may have nothing to do with ethics or morality
Do you believe that it is legitimate generally for philosophers to write about the nature of ethics? If so, I think the experience of reading actual ethics papers - as opposed to taking the word of a pop provocateur (Harris) - would soon reveal that the complexity of ethics necessitates great care with language - just as physics requires great care with numbers - and that large matters can turn on small differences of language. Anyone who takes a good ethics 101 class will by the end see Harris for what he is, viz., someone who is not particularly interested in or knowledgeable about the difficult questions of ethics.
"It's often the case that the unnecessary complexity of philosophy, the type that Harris denigrates, is born because philosophers are not necessarily studying ethics or morality, but the "finer points of language," which may have nothing to do with ethics or morality"Delete
Actually, Harris has repeatedly been OCD about the "finer points of language," insisting that we do or do not use certain terms as they are normally used. He has insisted we don't use the word "atheism," that we do use the word "science" to refer to all rational thinking, and that we use the word "religion" to refer to all irrational thinking. He has blasted people who use the word "spirituality" to refer to things other than what he uses it to refer to, which is meditation aimed at eliminating the sense of self. His argument for moral realism basically rests on defining terms like "good" and "bad" and "ethics" rather than making arguments that tie concepts together. He has avoided the label "utilitarian" simply to avoid associating himself with previous philosophical debates, because this would have the unfortunate consequence of making it seem like he is not an original thinker boldly cutting through swaths of bullshit with brilliant original insights. In The End of Faith he used innuendo to lend credence to superstitious beliefs but later failed to own up to his softness towards superstitions.
Sam Harris is often boldly willing to say what he believes, and while I'm not sure he's right, I admire his willingness to argue for torture under certain circumstances, the fact that different religions are not equally dangerous, and that Buddhism and Hinduism may have backbones of wisdom that are actually compatible with science. But when he's arguing a position that's hard to argue--when he's trying to settle a debate that has confounded really smart intellectuals for centuries--when he's more interested in rallying the troops that pointing out nuances--he resorts to equivocation, and it never illuminates ethics or morality.
jefscott, good post. You don't have to defend yourself against the red herring critiques you have received. Sam Harris does NOT write with an anti-intellectual (anti-philosophy) agenda (Somebody please prove otherwise for me, if I am mistaken). Furthermore, intelligent people publishing popular science/philosophy books for the layman to understand is very important and is NOT an offensive vice. If one's reading comprehension level is above the level of such books, then good for you. And if one believes that Harris has misrepresented some significant technical point to the layman reader, then respond to him. He has personally brought experts and waged challenges (see the current "Moral Landscape Challenge") on his own blog to give differing ideas there fair representation. And this also is not a point against him, but rather an example of his decent rationality.Delete
I cannot understand what the hostility is over. All I see are upset, fallacious assertions being made with no evidence of having read or understood anything Harris has written.
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“His argument for moral realism basically rests on defining terms like "good" and "bad" and "ethics" rather than making arguments that tie concepts together.”Delete
From everything I can tell, Harris has made it a goal to fundamentally tie the concept of “well being” with the definition of the words “good and bad”. His position is that if the words “good and bad” can have any useful meaning in ethics and morality, then it is as they relate to the well being of people and animals. Keep in mind the operative word here is useful. You could argue against its usefulness, but to argue that he doesn’t tie concepts together is to misunderstand his argument in a very basic way
So in the end, it is exactly his connection of these two concepts – “well being” and the “definition of good and bad” - which is why many of us think he has done something useful.
Of course, as with anything, it’s possible I’ve misunderstood something about Harris’s arguments. And if that’s the case I don’t mean to misrepresent or defend positions he doesn’t hold.
"If so, I think the experience of reading actual ethics papers - as opposed to taking the word of a pop provocateur (Harris) - would soon reveal that the complexity of ethics necessitates great care with language"Delete
"Actually, Harris has repeatedly been OCD about the "finer points of language," insisting that we do or do not use certain terms as they are normally used."
Good points. Keep in mind, I’m not actually arguing against the central role that language plays in the conceptualization and communications of ideas, especially ethical and moral ones. So we all know, Harris and Pigliucci included, that good use of language is very important. But we know there are modes of language that become disconnected from the usefulness of ideas that model reality.
If we ask specific question like, “what is the color of jealousy,” we could talk about a lot of different things. But at the end of the day we’ll have talked and talked and after breaking down the minutia of every word, we won’t be anywhere useful, except to realize this question is a failure of language to model something we are interested in.
So what I’m saying is that Harris, and others long before him, tend to change the question and language around to be something useful, while Massimo is an example of someone who will want to talk about the definition of “color” and “jealousy” and what the word “is” means. He’ll use all sorts of words that most people wouldn’t understand anyways, but the fact they won’t understand them doesn’t change the fact that he really wouldn’t be talking about much other than the way in which formulations of language can fail so easily as models of something we are interested in.
Also keep in mind, I’m not saying this is the case everytime with Massimo. Massimo and Harris probably have quite a lot in common, at least in practice of ethics and morality and maybe not in theory of how to derive it. What I’m saying is there’s a general correlation in explaining models of reality in simple ways that tend to be better or more useful models than those that attempt the same explanation in unnecessarily complex ways.
“ If so, I think the experience of reading actual ethics papers - as opposed to taking the word of a pop provocateur (Harris) - would soon reveal that the complexity of ethics necessitates great care with language “Delete
These types of concern are not meaningful. They have this sort of vague sense of an appeal to authority. Good or bad ideas, and good or bad uses of language are not dependent on whether one is a veteran publisher in ethics journals. Though I do think in the long run (where “long” can be many generations) better ideas tend to persist, but that is different sort of “popularity” then the one you invoke.
“Do you believe that it is legitimate generally for philosophers to write about the nature of ethics?”Delete
Sure, I don’t see any reason why anyone can’t comment on the nature of ethics and morality. Though I think there are inherent differences in the usefulness of some modes of thought compared to others. Like Massimo (and Harris) for instance, reliance on scripture and a supernatural entity seems the least useful. I tend to think that some modes of philosophical thought are useful, while others are not.
“someone who is not particularly interested in or knowledgeable about the difficult questions of ethics.”Delete
I just don’t think this is a useful or meaningful critique and this sort of thing is mostly a distraction. It seems that Harris spends spend a considerable, if not the majority, of his time writing and speaking about ethics and morality – so to say he is not “interested” about the difficult questions of ethics seems to misapply any meaningful definition of the word interested. Probably what you really mean is that you think he comes to the wrong conclusions or answers, which could be a useful critique
Yep I don't get this insistence that everything is science. In that way all Biology is Organic Chemistry and all Chemistry is Physics and lets just have one name for everything that we classify.ReplyDelete
I don't think that's at all what Harris is saying. He's not saying there's no difference between science and philosophy, he's saying the borders are porous and not absolute, just as in the examples you list. He's arguing that some questions traditionally considered the domain of philosophy might be approachable from a scientific point of view (and potentially vice versa), just as some questions in biology might be answered by new discoveries in physics or organic chemistry.
The insistence is that we should define anything which uses good reasons/evidence and logic to understand the nature of reality as science. So clearly by that definition not everything is science. Understanding the nature of the universe through scripture (religions), or astrology, or witchcraft, would be not be considered science.ReplyDelete
>Understanding the nature of the universe through scripture (religions), or astrology, or witchcraft, would be not be considered science.<ReplyDelete
It wouldn't be understanding or knowing either - it would be just making stuff up.
Dear Massimo, I'm not convinced that this argument:ReplyDelete
"I've had the privilege of writing both technical science and technical philosophy papers, and the two couldn't possibly be different or with less overlap, in subject matter, methods, and style."
... is sufficient to declare the two to be distinct magesteria. Writing papers in, say, theoretical cosmology compared to the social lives of baboons would also be very different in subject, style and content, yet both are accepted under the broad umbrella "science". I don't see any argument for a clear demarkation line dividing magesteria.
You don't have to think there's a clear demarcation in order to think that there's an important distinction to be made (pick your favorite version of the Sorites paradox.) And while you make a good point that the umbrella term "science" contains things as diverse as baboon sociology and theoretical cosmology, it seems like that point could be used to justify calling *anything* a science. "What? You don't think novel-writing is a science because it's different in style, subject matter, and method from most other sciences? Well that's not a convincing argument, because 'science' covers things as diverse as baboon sociology and theoretical cosmology!"Delete
Anyway, I have a pragmatic argument against using the term "science" so liberally. Even in America, where there's a lot of anti-intellectualism and anti-science, the terms "science" and "scientific" carry a certain amount of weight to them (that's why, for example, some economists are so eager to call their discipline a science. It adds to their credibility.) Combined with the fact that the popular understanding of science is pretty terrible, using the term "science" so liberally seems like it would cause nothing but confusion.
Let's say, for example, that philosophy is a kind of science. Philosophy articles are still published arguing in favor of substance dualism. Do you think Harris would be happy if newspapers printed headlines saying, "New scientific publication shows evidence of mind-body dualism!" Even if he sticks to his guns, my guess is that he'd end up saying something like, "Well the media should point out that this was a philosophy-science publication, not a 'normal' scientific study." So we're back to making the distinction anyway, regardless of whether we call philosophy a "science" or not.
On the "broad" definition of science I'd go for something like "learning about and understanding the universe using evidence and reason". Plenty of things then don't qualify. Any *good* philosophy would!Delete
On your last point, there's a difference between "arguing for" substance dualism and showing "evidence for" it. If there is no evidence for it then the philosophers should not be "arguing for" it. If there *is* evidence for it then it wouldn't matter if it were a "philosophy" paper or a "science" paper that presented it, what would matter would be the evidence.
Yes there is utility in different labels for different fields (e.g. biology v physics), but personally I think philosophy would benefit from seeing itself as part of this broad-definition enterprise.
Massimo, were you asked to be a respondent? You could have said "Sam Harris" as the one idea to be retired!ReplyDelete
One last thing: I've heard that the German term "wissenschaft" is used similarly to the way Harris proposes. My understanding is that "wissenschaft" basically refers to anything that involves systematic research or scholarship, so historians, linguists, literary scholars, etc., would all be considered to be engaging in "wissenschaft."ReplyDelete
It's not quite the same as Harris's use of the term "science," because "wissenschaft" seems to be characterized by a certain kind of systematization of knowledge, whereas Harris just requires the use of reason and evidence.
It isn't the impression I get from Harris (which isn't based solely on this article) - Coyne/Harris have mentioned in a few places about "Science construed broadly" which includes every day items like logic/reason/philsophy etc - I prefer the Jason Rosenhouse approach of call it Science+Philsophy+Reason+Maths (or massimo's SciPhi).
I believe their motivation for doing so, is so that religion can be tagged as unscientific or incompatible with science (a poor strategy if you want to reduce the influence of religion imo).