Tuesday, May 04, 2010
PZ and Philosophy
PZ has a fairly long post on the dispute between Sam Harris and Sean Carroll (the physicist) over whether you can derive any moral "ought" from a scientific "is." I think PZ has it right:
Science is an amoral judge: science could find that a slave culture of ant-like servility was a species optimum, or that a strong behavioral sexual dimorphism, where men and women had radically different statuses in society, was an excellent working solution. We bring in emotional and personal beliefs when we say that we'd rather not live in those kinds of cultures, and want to work towards building a just society.However, that's not what PZ said before when he excoriated "the bizarre claim that 'No scientist that is also a decent human being subjects all her/his beliefs to scientific scrutiny.' I think otherwise." Apparently, a non-relativistic morality need not be, indeed cannot be, the subject of science.
And that's OK. I think that deciding that my sisters and female friends and women all around the world ought to have just as good a chance to thrive as I do is justified given a desire to improve the well-being and happiness of all people. I am not endorsing moral relativism at all — we should work towards liberating everyone, and the Taliban are contemptible scum — I'm just not going to pretend that that goal is built on an entirely objective, scientific framework.
He also says:
I'm fine with setting up a set of desirable social goals — fairness, justice, compassion, and equality are just a start — and declaring that these will be the hallmark of our ideal society, and then using reason and science to work towards those objectives. I just don't see a scientific reason for the premises, wonderful as they are and as strongly as they speak to me. I also don't feel a need to label a desire as "scientific".Hmmm. That's not what he said about his desire for the Trophy WifeTM.
But, hey! There is no particular need for scientists to be consistent about philosophy. This time he's right and deserves kudos for that. It's well worth the read.
To be fair, it's hard to stake out a position between two patches of silliness without saying something silly yourself.
Humour aside, I've encountered a number of commentators who have insisted that science is the only legitimate way to guide actions - reflecting PZ's first position regarding the trophy wife. Do they adjust their views to accomodate their favorite blogger or is there another schism in the making?
I don't think I care much either way.
What any particular society thinks of as morality is merely the outcome of many individuals attitudes. Again, in principle, understandable by science, even if we can't yet do it, or it may be too difficult to do in practice.
Without supernatural imposition, a set of morals is just an arbitrary set of rules we generally agree with. Typically morals which support individual and group well being will tend to become established - but that is the unguided process of evolution. 'Science' has no view on the value or direction of morals - our species can continue or go extinct - because there is no 'ought'. We just kid ourselves that one (or more) exist.
I guess science could predict what we might do next, and how well it would work, based on knowledge of our evolutionary and experiential backgrounds, but it is unlikely to feel 'real' to us; we don't know ourselves well enough to judge.
Yes, you can study what "love" is but, say, there are two people you are attacted to, can you scientifically determine who you "ought" to marry? What metric would you use? Similarly, there are many societies with radically different moralities. How would you scientifically choose which is "best"? That was what Harris was proposing.
If you take certain things as premises (i.e.: maximal freedom, physical well being for the most people, etc.), you can make rational, even scientific, arguments as to which moral or political system will best accomplish them but scientifcally determining what the premises should be is, I think, impossible. If we were to chose an evolutionary goal, which social structures are achieving differential reproductive success, western democracies or represive Islamic states?
I do agree that generating a humanist or rationalist (or any other) set of morals from science is just as nonsensical, because by implication you need some goal or purpose for which there is no 'natural' source.
Really? There is nothing that we can do to escape "natural forces"? ... we are automatons? We have no choices? Then what makes you think we can "know" anything? You have no reason to believe that science is not an illusion that is just a hormonal imbalance in some people.