I’ve posted on this forum a few times before but have been a long time Sam Harris fan and follower. I recently created two YouTube videos responding to my interpretation of the disagreements from this podcast that I think clarify what often happens when Harris gets into arguments about these two topics. The links are below
Free Will: https://youtu.be/xQXvfwab1no
I will admit this might be a bit of shameless self promotion but I do honestly want to know what other people think about my analysis of these topics in the context of what Harris argues for. I figured this would be one of the best places to get honest evaluations of my thoughts. So, let me know what you think.
Thanks, Drengle, for your videos. So far, I’ve only looked at the first link.
Your linguistic approach may be the most efficient way to evaluate the validity of the no-free will arguments of Harris in his conversation with Carroll. You(a), you(b) and you(c) are each imbedded in our everyday language use. Whichever one is most applicable is automatically considered an unspoken implication between typical speakers/writers. You’re correct to point out that Harris makes use of potential confusion of language use, if that’s your intent. Harris habitually discards shadings of words that he seems to disapprove of, perhaps as a result of his religious bent.
Carroll, on the other hand, seems to fully understand the fragility of language use when sloppy word use ends rational thought. His “levels” of description seem to me to display his understanding and thinking when it comes to concepts such as free will, determinism and self. His take on free will is analogous to yours in the sense that he claims that when describing nature’s wonders, arguments can quickly become nonsense unless close attention is given to consistent language use. He speaks of emergent phenomena often requiring an entirely different linguistic approach as opposed to what’s suitable and appropriate for descriptions of subatomic particle behavior, for instance. His take on free will seems especially useful because it allows for the legitimacy of arguments both in favor of the concept of free will, and against free will.
I’ll listen to your second talk when I get the chance, and meanwhile hope to see some activity in this thread.
Also, here’s an excerpt from the Harris/Carroll conversation that isolates out the free-will part.
It’s really simple, what comes next is determined by what came before, done. When you start talking about precise language etc this moves from science to philosophy which is just endless opinions of other opinions without an answer, because a) we don’t like the actual answer or b) there isn’t one. Freewill feels intuitive, and even understanding that it isn’t real doesn’t change how we feel or act since those are determined
. . .
With the second link, Drengle, I see your point regarding an implied agreement between what is and what ought to happen as a result of what is. On the other hand, if the step that you refer to is indeed implied, then why doesn’t Harris admit such an implication when repeatedly asked to do so by Carroll? If I’ve misunderstood your comments in some way, please let me know, as I appreciate your thinking style.
In my terribly subjective opinion, Harris at times dogmatically pursues an over-deployment of the scientific method as it pertains to morality that invites unreasonably strict utilitarianism. Some morality ways are subtle and not readily answerable to strict analysis as it’s practiced today, in my opinion.
Morality of course does have a close potential relationship to science seeing as how scientific exploration employs superb methods of answering difficult questions. But this is certainly not news. Judges, legislators, authors of regulations, and ethics professionals already employ science to whatever extent they can afford.
Harris keeps pushing the argument that all we need to do to establish an objective basis for morality is to define what is objectively bad. For that baseline, he proposes “the worst possible misery for everyone”. OK, let’s grant that. An objective bad exists.
But that begs the question of what morality is. The problem with an objective definition of morality was never a question of WHAT is bad. The problem is HOW CAN WE KNOW? Morality is only meaningful as far as it affects conscious beings. It is not a physical phenomenon like the laws of motion that govern the solar system, which are regardless of whether anyone is there to witness them.
We can never know which action will cause the least “objectively bad” result. It is a problem of the limits of the mind’s access to future consequences. Even if we grant that a scientific basis exists for defining what is an objectively good vs. objectively bad state, it does nothing to solve the problem of how humans can judge HOW to achieve them. And that is what morality is. It is not about measuring good or bad states. It is a judgment of our actions in achieving those states.
On a strictly positive note, your presentation is clear, fluid and easy on the mind, so to speak. A welcome edition to the YouTube discussion genre, as far as I can tell. Watching the one on morality makes me want to watch the one on free will, as well as anything else you put out. I’ve subscribed.
As for content, I think you downplay the difference between Harris and Carroll by saying the disagreement is mainly a matter of “defining” ethics in different way. What Carroll objects to in Harris is the way he “defines” ethics; the way Harris thinks, generally, that one can derive an “ought” from an “is”, and specifically that one can derive the “ought” to avoid the worst possible suffering for everyone from the mere fact of that suffering. For Carroll, however obvious that “ought” is, it is not derivable from the state of the universe in which only suffering persists. Adding it as an imperative requires adding an end-in-view not entailed by what exists, namely, a state of the universe with less suffering. This extra addition requires an act of the imagination; it requires positing something that isn’t—or at least, isn’t yet. And this positing—this act of adding an imperative to change “what is”—doesn’t follow from a straightforward statement of what is. Or at least for Carroll it doesn’t. For Harris, it does, and that is the disagreement.
In the final analysis, Carroll may or may not object to the truth (or not) of this new end-in-view superadded to the universe—the added “axiom,” as he calls it—but he does object to Harris’ claim that this maxim logically follows from any determination of “what is”. And he’s right, it doesn’t follow (not without cheating, that is), and even if it did follow, what Harris derives from it—the idea that well-being in general is the end-in-view of all moral judgement—doesn’t follow from that. The only “ought” that [sic] follows from “the worst possible suffering for everyone” is that one ought to move beyond that, if the possibility arises. From this it doesn’t follow that in a universe with both suffering and well-being, one ought to maximize well-being, much less adjudicate all actions as right or wrong in terms of advancing, or not, that well-being. In the mixed universe we live in, there doesn’t appear to be any self-evident superordinate imperative to follow (no self-edifying “ought”), much less one about maximizing well-being, and since this is the universe we actually live in, it’s the universe Harris needs to worry about. It’s the one he needs to derive his ought from. In other words, if Harris wants to argue for well-being as the end-in-view of all moral striving, and if he’s going to derive this end-in-view from what is the case, then he’s going to have to start with the universe that is the case, not with one that isn’t, one where a tautological definition of “bad” is pre-loaded into the scheme. For that’s all his “worst possible suffering” is—a tautology that preloads an implicit evaluative scheme (for note, “worst” implies the existence of “bad” and the possibility of “better”; it implies an evaluative scheme exists, which is precisely the question—does one exist?). The thought-experiment may be a clever anchoring point for making arguments about what “bad” means, and it may back detractors into a corner of sorts where they have to agree with him (and therefore give him what he thinks he needs to make his arguments). But ultimately it’s a non-sequitur. As long as Harris wants to derive an “ought” from an “is,” he’s going to have to start from the universe we have, not the one he makes up. With this in mind, contrary to what you claim for him, Harris’ attempt to “carve a path for what we should do next given our nature” doesn’t really do that, and it doesn’t do it because it only applies to a universe that doesn’t even exist (if that), or to “natures” that we don’t even have (there is scant evidence that “maximizing well-being” explains human behavior). This does not seem to be, as you seem to suggest, a practical basis for ethics.
Hypothetical-worlds thought experiments like Harris’ are common enough in analytic philosophy, the genre of Harris’ training. Rawls uses one (his “original position” to derive a notion of liberal equality), Rorty uses one (his “Antipodeans” to prove eliminative materialism), and Harris uses one (his “the worst possible suffering” to derive well-being as the summum bonum of all moral striving). In my opinion, none of these thought experiments prove anything beyond the fact the one can load the conclusions one wants into premises one starts with, then cry victory when one pulls them back out again. In Harris’s case, by defining the suffering as the worst he’s already imported an evaluative scheme where “better” is possible, even desirable, hence his “logical” derivation. But the derivation is a magician’s illusion, like pulling the rabbit out of the hat because you’ve already put it in there. This, I think, is the argument you ought to analyze, even if you show the particular analysis here is faulty. In any event, making a peace of sorts between them by saying they define ethics differently and that one has a practical motive, not a meta-ethical or abstract one, just won’t do because Harris’ practical end-game is only supported by his abstract meta-ethical argument, which is itself only supported by a question-begging thought experiment.
I guess I’d say this: I think your concluding distinction between “abstract” and “concrete” ethics is right to make, but I think you wrongly apply it to Harris. Carroll, it seems, is the more “practical” of the two—the one who wants to get ethics off the ground with a pragmatic axiom accountable to “our nature,” not one logically derived as an “ought” from an “is” that doesn’t even apply to the universe we live in, or to our natures within it. Carroll more than Harris seems focus on the beings we are instead of thought-experiments about the beings we are not (this comes out more in his book). My suggestion would be to follow up by discussing this difference—in other words, discuss what it means to provide a foundation for ethics in the first place. For that, it seems to me, is the hinge on which the door between them swings. Harris has one way through meta-ethical, hypothetical-world arguments. Carroll has another through positing axioms we can all live with, axioms not provable through meta-ethical argument. Are these projects the same? Do they end up in the same place? If not, how do they differ? This issue—the one raised by your concluding thoughts—seems worth exploring further.