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27 year-old David Hume: 1, Sam Harris who should know better: 0

 
generationofvipers
 
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generationofvipers
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24 January 2017 12:49
 

I guess this is the hill upon which Harris’s philosophical reputation will die, because nothing he has written on the is/ought subject has any credibility outside of his narrow realm of modernist science fan boys and girls, and he can’t seem to find the good sense to just move on. No matter, though. The idea that science can give us our values was stillborn before Sam even joined the fray, and he hasn’t been able to vivify its corpse enough to even mount a decent stink. 

I have watched with pained chagrin as a man who I used to admire has proven completely incapable of grasping the obvious and fundamental distinction between what is and what should be.  One look in a dictionary might be sufficient to tell him that the two terms mean different things; and a primer in the philosophy of science would help him understand the limitations of the method he is touting. If Sam did more science, instead of talking about it, he would soon realize that he did not discover any values anywhere in his scientific labors. 

Yet Sam continues to contort himself in ways that even a Christian apologist would find bizarre, all so that he can just..maintain..his…pre..con…ceptions!  Ouch.  This is as painful as watching Einstein struggle against Heisenberg or the Vienna Circle argue for the verification principle when Popper’s critique was so obviously true. Another fine but rigid mind that proves incapable of progressing past a line he has laid in the sand years ago. 

It is a sad state of affairs when a person becomes so enamored with their own wit and erudition that they start to believe their own bullshit. Maybe it is a danger inherent to all men past a certain age, as I am sure I suffer from it. But one would think that a man who claims to be a lover of rational discourse would see that discourse as more than a method to entrench himself further in a rather indefensible position.

[ Edited: 24 January 2017 13:05 by generationofvipers]
 
EN
 
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EN
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29 January 2017 19:11
 

Agreed that Sam is wrong on this, but he still has enough credibility in other areas to survive.  He should just stick with his critique of religion and not try to replace it with another system.  He should “dance with who brung him” and not lose his focus.

 
After_The_Jump
 
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After_The_Jump
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30 January 2017 08:07
 

@ generationofvipers

I have watched with pained chagrin as a man who I used to admire has proven completely incapable of grasping the obvious and fundamental distinction between what is and what should be.

I don’t interpret Sam’s words as dismissing the philosophical distinction. Rather, I hear his words as an attempt to push back against the use of the distinction as a way to derail substantive conversation. It happens all.the.time: someone engages in a conversation, availing themselves of all of the tools of operational definitions and rank-order position-taking to make their argument, only to play the ‘we really can’t *know* anything’ card once their argument is factually undermined.

To help clear up my possibly errant thinking here, perhaps you can answer a question for me: if we don’t grant the arbitrary assumption that there is in fact a divine artificer who has an opinion about how the world ‘ought’ to be, what’s left of the ‘ought/is’ distinction?

 

 

[ Edited: 30 January 2017 08:20 by After_The_Jump]
 
d0rkyd00d
 
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30 January 2017 09:29
 
After_The_Jump - 30 January 2017 08:07 AM

@ generationofvipers

I have watched with pained chagrin as a man who I used to admire has proven completely incapable of grasping the obvious and fundamental distinction between what is and what should be.

I don’t interpret Sam’s words as dismissing the philosophical distinction. Rather, I hear his words as an attempt to push back against the use of the distinction as a way to derail substantive conversation. It happens all.the.time: someone engages in a conversation, availing themselves of all of the tools of operational definitions and rank-order position-taking to make their argument, only to play the ‘we really can’t *know* anything’ card once their argument is factually undermined.

To help clear up my possibly errant thinking here, perhaps you can answer a question for me: if we don’t grant the arbitrary assumption that there is in fact a divine artificer who has an opinion about how the world ‘ought’ to be, what’s left of the ‘ought/is’ distinction?

I hate to jump in here to re-stoke the flames from the Moral Landscape thread, but I find it…..irresistable…..

Let me begin by answering your question with a question: why must anyone grant this arbitrary assumption about a divine artificer?  It is not relevant to the conversation.  To directly answer your question: The is/ought distinction remains un-phased, as it doesn’t seem to rely on this assumption at all, for anything.  One cannot derive an is from an ought due to the rules of logic.  Now one can certainly criticize logical systems for being arbitrary in a sense, but if one agrees that logical systems are useful for exposing errors in our thought processes, then this seems the only assumption one needs to grant to be stuck by the is-ought problem.

 
After_The_Jump
 
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30 January 2017 09:44
 

@ d0rkyd00d

I hate to jump in here to re-stoke the flames from the Moral Landscape thread, but I find it…..irresistable…..

Yes, it does seem you and I would be poised to have the same conversation again grin Having said that, I’m okay with it if you are.

Let me begin by answering your question with a question: why must anyone grant this arbitrary assumption about a divine artificer?  It is not relevant to the conversation.

It’s relevant because we only have evidence of is’s; we have no evidence at all there there is actually a way the world ‘ought’ to be.

Now one can certainly criticize logical systems for being arbitrary in a sense, but if one agrees that logical systems are useful for exposing errors in our thought processes, then this seems the only assumption one needs to grant to be stuck by the is-ought problem.

As I believe I stated in our previous discussion: I recognize the philosophical conundrum of the ‘ought/is’ discussion. What I said then - and still maintain - is that the nature of getting ‘stuck’ by that conundrum only exists in the philosophical world, not the real one. Because in the real world, we’re going to make a decision about anything the moment we become aware of it; it’s inevitable. And in making any decision, we are quite directly cutting right through the conundrum of ‘ought’. In other words, ‘ought’ or not, we’re doing *something* either way. Being ‘stuck’ by ‘ought versus is’ isn’t an option that’s accessible to us in the real world.

So then, how do we go about determining what we should do? In the real world, trying to determine what we ‘ought’ to do breaks onto some form of two paths (1) trying to interpret what we think ‘the universe’ wants and/or (2) analyzing the current landscape of ‘is’s’ to project what the best decision to make is (including decisions like what we should value).

Thus, I see Sam Harris’s point as a rather simple one: option (2) is much more viable than option (1). Because option (1) may be one giant fallacy anyway, and even if it isn’t it’s still currently unknowable and likely will remain unknowable.

 

[ Edited: 30 January 2017 09:47 by After_The_Jump]
 
EN
 
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30 January 2017 09:55
 

Perhaps it would be advantageous to stop discussing “should” concepts altogether.  We can simply agree to do what is in our best interests and remove morality from the equation.

 
After_The_Jump
 
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30 January 2017 10:12
 

@ EN

Perhaps it would be advantageous to stop discussing “should” concepts altogether.  We can simply agree to do what is in our best interests and remove morality from the equation.

I think if we view ‘morality’ as a social construct as opposed to a divinely authored set of principles, the existence of ‘morality’ in the equation becomes mundane and noncontroversial. I used a working example in my previous conversation with d0rkyd00d of embryonic stem cell research to try to illustrate this.

Specifically, for the better part of a decade, our nation’s leadership placed bans on various kinds of embryonic stem cell research. The reasoning for this was explicitly ‘moral’; using stem cells for research was ‘wrong’ because destroying stem cells represented killing a ‘creation from God’ that had the *potential* to be ‘human’. That’s still the position of virutally all the people and groups who oppose embryonic stem cell research.

Yet, we knew for that whole stretch of time that embryonic stem cell research was the most effective means we had to develop viable treatments for various debilitating ailments. And, we also knew that embryonic stem cells did not have brains, nervous systems, or any of the components we associate with ‘humans’ generally.

If we rid ourselves of the notion of a divinely inspired ‘ought’, what’s left of the argument against embryonic stem cell research?

And the reality is that the moment we became aware of embryonic stem cell research, we were forced into a position of doing *something* about. Even if we were to be ‘stuck’ by the ought/is conundrum, the nature of our inability to make a decision about stem cell research immediately puts us in an active position of not doing it even though we know we could. Only in the philosophical world could we actually be stuck. There, we could talk until we’re blue in the face and agree that we can’t arrive at what we ‘ought’ to do about embryonic stem cell research. In the real world though, we’re “doing” something either way.

[ Edited: 30 January 2017 10:23 by After_The_Jump]
 
d0rkyd00d
 
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30 January 2017 10:47
 
After_The_Jump - 30 January 2017 09:44 AM

It’s relevant because we only have evidence of is’s; we have no evidence at all there there is actually a way the world ‘ought’ to be.

Absolutely understood and agree.

As I believe I stated in our previous discussion: I recognize the philosophical conundrum of the ‘ought/is’ discussion. What I said then - and still maintain - is that the nature of getting ‘stuck’ by that conundrum only exists in the philosophical world, not the real one. Because in the real world, we’re going to make a decision about anything the moment we become aware of it; it’s inevitable. And in making any decision, we are quite directly cutting right through the conundrum of ‘ought’. In other words, ‘ought’ or not, we’re doing *something* either way. Being ‘stuck’ by ‘ought versus is’ isn’t an option that’s accessible to us in the real world.

So then, how do we go about determining what we should do? In the real world, trying to determine what we ‘ought’ to do breaks onto some form of two paths (1) trying to interpret what we think ‘the universe’ wants and/or (2) analyzing the current landscape of ‘is’s’ to project what the best decision to make is (including decisions like what we should value).

Thus, I see Sam Harris’s point as a rather simple one: option (2) is much more viable than option (1). Because option (1) may be one giant fallacy anyway, and even if it isn’t it’s still currently unknowable and likely will remain unknowable.

Okay, I believe I clearly see some of the points of disagreement we have.  First, I do not see this as being a problem strictly in philosophy, with no carryover into the “real world.”  And I don’t think Hume felt this was the case, either.  Simply because we are forced to make decisions on a daily basis doesn’t alleviate or cut through the problem, it simply disregards it (and I don’t think that’s synonymous). 

Harris is arguing that if we do NOT disregard this problem, then we cannot make progress in this issue in the scientific way he describes.  And I believe he is correct about that.

 
After_The_Jump
 
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30 January 2017 15:42
 

@d0rkyd00d

Simply because we are forced to make decisions on a daily basis doesn’t alleviate or cut through the problem, it simply disregards it (and I don’t think that’s synonymous).

Yeah, I think that’s the actionable intel here. if there’s no way the world ‘ought’ to be, celestially speaking, then when we’re deciding what we should do on any given topic any time spent pondering anything other than evidence-based ‘oughts’ is wasted time.

And this is a concept I don’t read Hume as fully grasping. Personally, I think this is more due to the context of the time he existed in. In the 1700s, most people who criticized religion still couldn’t seem to dismiss the notion of a Deity generally; rather, they criticized theism specifically. Given how little was known then about creation generally (Hume predated Darwin by more than half a decade), I’m sure it was difficult to ponder existence without some kind of deference to deistic authorship of some sort.

Harris is arguing that if we do NOT disregard this problem, then we cannot make progress in this issue in the scientific way he describes.  And I believe he is correct about that.

Yeah, that seems like an accurate assessment.

 

 

[ Edited: 30 January 2017 15:46 by After_The_Jump]
 
Twissel
 
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31 January 2017 04:40
 

the is/ought problem is very much like Trolley problems: irrelevant in real life.

What Harris tries to achieve, visualized via the “Moral Landscape”, is not to give a definite answer about what should be done in any situation, but to give a sense of what is better and what is worse, given the current level of information.

 
 
d0rkyd00d
 
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31 January 2017 05:33
 
Twissel - 31 January 2017 04:40 AM

the is/ought problem is very much like Trolley problems: irrelevant in real life.

What Harris tries to achieve, visualized via the “Moral Landscape”, is not to give a definite answer about what should be done in any situation, but to give a sense of what is better and what is worse, given the current level of information.

I don’t think that’s true.  I have not heard a large chorus of folks who are championing the trolley problem as some deep conundrum that poses a threat to any moral systems we try to create; however, there ARE a large number of very intelligent and wise folks who have poked holes in Harris’s work, citing Hume as just one of the issues / shortcomings of the Moral Landscape.  The book is a non-starter, as it doesn’t add clarity or have explanatory power, and glaring flaws must be ignored completely to even believe it is feasible.

The answer is, and always has been, philosophy.  Philosophy can give us moral and ethical systems on which to base society, which we have used for millenia, and which we will continue to use.  People aren’t going to stop acting morally until they believe (erroneously) that science has reached a verdict about well-being.

 
d0rkyd00d
 
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31 January 2017 09:06
 

I’d like to point out one other problem that seems to get lost in translation when discussing this issue, although it might be better suited to the Moral Landscape thread. 

Harris claims that Physics suffers the same flaws as his proposed science-based system of morals and ethics.  What I feel has gone unnoticed is one glaring and obvious difference between physics and morals.

I think most would agree that physics is based on the observation of an external world that existed long before we arrived.  We watch an apple fall, we observe its motion, and we come up with formulas that describe it.  There is no such external world to speak of when it comes to morals and ethics, which is a fiction created by our species, and one which relies heavily on qualia, something completely un-observable from an outside perspective.  One is physical, the other metaphysical.  I don’t see how one can simply ignore this drastic difference because assumptions are required for each.

 
After_The_Jump
 
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31 January 2017 13:16
 

@ d0rkyd00d

There is no such external world to speak of when it comes to morals and ethics, which is a fiction created by our species, and one which relies heavily on qualia, something completely un-observable from an outside perspective.  One is physical, the other metaphysical.  I don’t see how one can simply ignore this drastic difference because assumptions are required for each.

I’d agree this is the primary point of difference. Although, I think Harris’s point is that there are in fact observable, testable components of our world that can and should inform our ‘morals’. And, that those observable, testable components of our world should be the driving force in our determination of ‘morals’ as opposed to attempts to guess at what a certain Deity or dogmatic set of principles may ‘call’ us to do.

I think Harris also addresses the difference you identified in his explanation of multiple peaks and valleys as it relates to a ‘moral landscape’. Obviously, there’s not much room for multiple ‘right’ answers for a phenomenon like gravity. Essentially, there’s room for one right answer, and one right answer only. Harris makes clear though that, in the moral sphere, there may be many right answers and many wrong answers. In this way, scientific approaches to determining ‘moral values’ won’t lead to answers that are as clean and concise as answers like gravity. But, the answers we get in the moral sphere through scientific processes stand to be reliably and consistently better than the ones we get from theistic and/or ideological dogmas.

 

[ Edited: 31 January 2017 14:44 by After_The_Jump]
 
TheOnlyMerlin
 
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31 January 2017 14:39
 
Twissel - 31 January 2017 04:40 AM

the is/ought problem is very much like Trolley problems: irrelevant in real life.

I think this may be to a certain extent true, but it is quickly becoming very relevant.  The classic situations where we need real world answers to situations like the Trolly Problem is in Robotic Ethics, an area that strongly interests me. 

A self-driving vehicle can find itself in a situation where it has a dilemma of two main options (let’s say going left or right) where on one hand it will endanger one set of people, and in the other it will endanger another set.  For instance, it could be on an icy road and an unexpected tree in the road will suddenly force it to decide between two maneuvers: to run into a family of nearby skiers (likely killing them), or send the vehicle and its passengers off a cliff. It will need to make a decision, and it will need to be done in a way that is unambiguous because computers can’t understand ambiguity (what are the numbers of the registers that the bits are going to go into?).  It needs to also be able to render a decision in whatever combination of danger levels, passengers, maneuvers, bystanders, etc.

It also needs to be procedural (ie, it needs a procedure / process to determine how it came to its answer), because if—> then logic works until you find yourself in a situation not covered by your conditionals, and AI researchers long ago realized that the real world is too complicated to try and think of every possible outcome.  Also, items on a spectrum (up/down, left/right, weight, time, inertia, etc) and items that allow novelty (such as vehicle designs and other inventions) make it the “if” part ineffective for covering all potentially relevant bounds.  Even more than that, even if you did have a huge set of “if {this} then {that}”, that invites the question “how did you derive that conditional in the first place?”

All of this provides a pointed element where theologians and philosophers can expound about theoretical elements, about relativism, about the inability to answer moral questions, or the importance of intent, or whatever other discussion point they like.  The thing is that at the end of the day “What will it *do*?”  We are trying to determine a *course of action*. Any discussion trying to answer the question “What should it do?” that doesn’t eventually amount in an action is not answering the question (duh!). This collectively puts much more focus on specifics and action than I think most philosophers are comfortable with.

This is a big part why I have such an interest in robotic ethics: it *forces* us to answer ethical questions in a practical, complete, and unambiguous way.  Also, it is very important because the more autonomy these devices have, the more critical it becomes that they act *correctly*.  Self driving cars are already here, and the deluge of independently acting agents is around the corner.

 
After_The_Jump
 
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31 January 2017 14:46
 

@ TheOnlyMerlin

This is a big part why I have such an interest in robotic ethics: it *forces* us to answer ethical questions in a practical, complete, and unambiguous way.

Absolutely. Agreed 100%. And the more expansive the technology gets, the more thorough we’ll have to be in our codifying of moral/ethical behavior.

 

 
d0rkyd00d
 
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01 February 2017 05:42
 
After_The_Jump - 31 January 2017 01:16 PM

I’d agree this is the primary point of difference. Although, I think Harris’s point is that there are in fact observable, testable components of our world that can and should inform our ‘morals’. And, that those observable, testable components of our world should be the driving force in our determination of ‘morals’ as opposed to attempts to guess at what a certain Deity or dogmatic set of principles may ‘call’ us to do.

Why should they be the driving force?  Because Harris says so?  Harris is just replacing one set of dogmatic principles with his own.  Not a bad thing, but certainly no more reasonable or logical than anything else one could imagine, and I don’t expect anybody to be convinced by that who has a different set of beginning principles (why should they change their mind, if their principles have just as much footing as his?).

I think Harris also addresses the difference you identified in his explanation of multiple peaks and valleys as it relates to a ‘moral landscape’. Obviously, there’s not much room for multiple ‘right’ answers for a phenomenon like gravity. Essentially, there’s room for one right answer, and one right answer only. Harris makes clear though that, in the moral sphere, there may be many right answers and many wrong answers. In this way, scientific approaches to determining ‘moral values’ won’t lead to answers that are as clean and concise as answers like gravity. But, the answers we get in the moral sphere through scientific processes stand to be reliably and consistently better than the ones we get from theistic and/or ideological dogmas.

So it is kind of like Peterson’s definition of truth: defined however we like it.  Yes, it’s science, except that it provides multiple right answers and doesn’t explain anything about our world that we didn’t already know.  In other words, it’s not science.

 
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