Harris and Pigliucci: On moral philosophy

Say what you will, Sam Harris knows how to stir a hive and send its inhabitants into a positive buzz. Some of them will turn this into an opportunity to get some intellectual exercise. Others may fly into a frenzy and sting at anything and everything, eventually disembowelling themselves intellectually in the process. Of the first, Brother Blackford (to co-opt a recently Coyned soubriquet) is a prime example: his ruminations are clearly valuable to the discussion. But where clarity is its own reward, the contributions of others need to be carefully disentangled from their ill-conceived targets, in order that everybody may see clearly where they went off course. Massimo Pigliucci has thankfully supplied us with such an opportunity—one is tempted to say: again.

This opportunity then is not one to defend Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape (TML); he is a big guy and can take care of himself (and his ideas). On the contrary, it is one to positively assert the values and proper methods of rational criticism—which, to get slightly ahead of myself, are fundamentally the same in philosophy as in science. Also, I might be able to slip one or two somewhat novel ideas into the discussion to try and help propel it forward.

If philosophy’s goal is to teach us how to think well, then its first order of business is, in Wittgenstein’s words, “to make [thoughts] clear and to give them sharp boundaries”. At the heart of TML is the repudiation of the idea that facts and values live in different realms. That idea has often been equated with the is–ought problem, usually traced back to David Hume. In his review, Pigliucci takes the same road, asserting that Harris “spectacularly” fails to undermine the separation of facts from values.

At this point, we would have to consider two things: is the supposed separation absolute, i.e. is there no conceivable way to get from one to the other; and if the separation is not absolute, what are the conditions that get us from one to the other. The first is easily settled, as even Hume takes pains to point out that, for the traversal to be successful, “’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given”. While a logical deduction may not be possible, other rational inferences are explicitly not ruled out—and it would be apposite to point out that any science of course relies on such forms of induction for its conclusions.

That out of the way, the question becomes: how do we get from an ultimate goal to concrete instructions for action? Pigliucci thinks he has found an insurmountable stumbling block in that science cannot compel us to accept any criterion that we might use to judge an action moral: “science cannot make us agree on whether that particular criterion (pain) is moral or not.” But Harris is perfectly aware of this complaint:

It is essential to see that the demand for radical justifiaction leveled by the moral skeptic could not be met by any branch of science. … It would be impossible to prove that our definition of science is correct, because our standards of proof will be built into any proof we would offer. What evidence could prove that we should value evidence? What logic could demonstrate the importance of logic? (TML, 37)

This very closely follows John Stuart Mill’s views on the matter, expressed a mere 140 years earlier:

Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof. The medical art is proved to be good, by its conducing to health; but how is it possible to prove that health is good? (Utilitarianism, Ch I)

Science cannot show us what truth is, but it can show us what is true. Similarly, science cannot show why we should value well-being, but it can show us, and in that sense determine, what we should do in order to achieve it. This is not an over-reaching of science into fields where it does not belong. Also, Pigliucci’s accusation of “scientism” (a hopelessly ill-defined term, or as Dan Dennett says: nonsense) is miles wide of the mark:

if we can define “science” as any type of rational-empirical inquiry into “facts” (the scare quotes are his) then we are talking about something that is not at all what most readers are likely to understand when they pick up a book with a subtitle that says “How Science Can Determine Human Values” (my italics).

Three things. One, that definition of science is hardly controversial. Two, the assertion about readers’ presuppositions would need supporting evidence. And three, Harris explicitly deals with this objection—in the same note that Pigliucci quotes to support his charge of “scientism”:

Granted, one doesn’t generally think of events like assassinations as “scientific” facts, but the murder of President Kennedy is as fully corroborated a fact as can be found anywhere, and it would betray a profoundly unscientific frame of mind to deny that it occurred. I think “science,” therefore, should be considered a specialized branch of a larger effort to form true beliefs about events in our world. (TML, 195n2)

Contrary to Pigliucci’s assertion about what readers expect when picking up a science book, and contrary to the assertion that Harris’s conception of science is well out of the mainstream, we think of all sorts of disciplines as “sciences” (including, of course, all historical sciences, from history to palaentology). Moreover, we would also characterise the systematic inquiry into a murder as “scientific”—to quote Bertrand Russell, “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods” (Religion and Science). To make matters worse, even Pigliucci’s attempted separation of philosophy from science is not successful—Russell, again, on the continuousness of the two:

those questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy. (The Problems of Philosophy, Ch. XV)

In a sense, then, philosophy is the rational exploration of hypothetical space, where science is that of real space. In its pursuit of truth, moreover, science necessarily generates its own values. Harris dutifully points this out in the Introduction of TML:

the very idea of “objective” knowledge (i.e., knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.). (TML, 11)

This idea of “an ethic for science which derives directly from its own activity” is one that was possibly first elaborated on by Jacob Bronowski in 1956:

The values of science derive neither from the virtues of its members, nor from the finger-wagging codes of conduct by which every profession reminds itself to be good. They have grown out of the practice of science, because they are the inescapable conditions for its practice. (Science and Human Values, 69)

Which, incidentally, leads him to reject the idea of an is–ought problem outright: “‘Ought’ is dictated by ‘is’ in the actual inquiry for knowledge.” (Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, 129) This, of course, nicely ties in with what Jerry Coyne, among others, has maintained about the status of methodological naturalism as a principle in science, which has been falsely equated with religious dogmas—all of which is of some consequence in the accommodationism debate.

What all this amounts to is another idea of Bronowski’s, a “social injunction”, as he calls it, and another stab at Hume: “We ought to act in such a way that what is true can be verified to be so.” (Science and Human Values, 66) Pigliucci’s review repeatedly runs afoul of this principle. The two most instructive cases will have to suffice to make this point.

First, the use of painfully inadequate arguments, especially the appeal to authority. In reference to Harris’s well-argued consideration of lie-detecting neuroscience, Pigliucci has this to say: “If these sentences do not conjure the specter of a really, really scary Big Brother in your mind, I suggest you get your own brain scanned for signs of sociopathology.” That anyone, let alone a professor of philosophy, should literally argue, ‘If you don’t agree with me, you should get your head examined’, is deplorable.

Second, inaccurate and misleading representation of what the other person says. Harris excuses his omission of philosophical jargon by (only half-jokingly, I suspect) asserting that it every piece of it “directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe” (TML, 197n1). Pigliucci says this amounts to a dismissal of all of metaethics, that Harris finds it boring, that TML as a whole “shies away from philosophy”. (And so on and all-too-predictably on.) Not only is this implausible even given the quote that Pigliucci used; Harris explicitly gives his reasons for “not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy”: he arrived at his position not because of that literature, but for independent logical reasons; and he wants to make the discussion as accessible to lay readers as possible. Again, in such a way to distort a position beyond recognition is deplorable.

Paraphrasing Wittgenstein, we can thus arrive at a simple philosophical injunction: ‘whereof one cannot speak fairly, thereof one should be silent.’ Which, it unfortunately needs to be added, is not to say that anybody should shut up. It is a friendly reminder, in the interest of all concerned, to raise your game.

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