Sam Harris: “Values” & Modern Science

Regarding a Sam Harris video from TED which a friend asked me to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww&feature=player_embedded

What is going on here is that Harris is presupposing an Enlightenment understanding of “values,” and then and saying that, contrary to much pop opinion, this is really not at all in different sphere from modern science. He might be right, because these two realms are, to invoke Aristotle, “contrary propositions within the same genus.” They are apparent opposites, but in reality they are kissing cousins, two sides of the same coin.

But what if we were to frame the debate in terms of representation versus participation?

That is, what if we were to grant that modern science and enlightenment-based values, are, in fact, overlapping spheres, but then to challenge the common assumptions of this sphere: that our minds interact with the “external world” or creation according to a scheme of representation (ie, “pictures in the brain”)? Over and against this modern assumption (espoused, for example, by Descartes) is the premodern approach to knowledge which is participatory: the form of the tree migrates into my mind (and vice-versa) much like small particles of fragrant coffee are wafting into my nostrils even as I write this.

What needs to be challenged, therefore, is the enlightenment, representationalist worldview which is shared by both privatized “values” and the modern science establishment.

“Values are certain kinds of facts: facts about the well-being of conscious creatures” presupposes a positivistic epistemology. He is letting modern science define his terms and frame the issues.

“There is no notion of values that I have ever come across that is not reducible to a concern about conscious experience.” Really? How about the “notion of values” of Ancient Jews? Or of 5th century Athens?

Notice how he reduces religion-driven values down to the “afterlife.” Perhaps he should try reading the Bible sometime. Paul almost never speaks of “the afterlife,” let alone Jesus and the Old Testament. “The afterlife” is a term which hegemonically imposes a modern conception of self and religion upon Christian theology.

He assumes that “adding cholera to the water” would “probably not be a good thing.” I’m surprised to hear him say this, since he is not a pacifist. Surely there might be, given his worldview, a time and a place to add cholera to the water, for example, as strategy in the middle east of Afghanistan in the American Empire’s “war on terror?”

4:55 Brain versus mind. This is a huge example of begging the question. He argues that variant understandings of human flourishing are reducible down to culture-induced changes in the brain (but how does he know this?), and so we can understand these differing value systems through “a maturing science of the mind: neuroscience, psychology, etc.”

He speaks repeatedly of a “state of wellbeing.” What is that, and who gets to choose? Is it “not killing each other?” That seems rather shallow and unambitious. (What if we start killing ourselves?) Is it pleasure? That is certainly what the Epicureans and the radical skeptics thought, but the Stoics trenchantly disagreed. Who is right? Will modern science settle this debate?

What is wonderful, however, about Sam Harris is that he is passionately concerned about human flourishing. Would be that more “Christians” shared his passion.

In addition, I agree that “there are right and wrong answers” to the best ways to promote human flourishing.” How to determine those, however, is where the disagreement starts.

One more thought: I love TED!

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Harris presupposes?…when you state, “but in reality they are kissing cousins, two sides of the same coin.” That is a huge presupposition on your part. Science…unlike religion…is testable everywhere (US,canada, Russia, China etc.)with EXACT conclusions. Religions on the other hand is different throughtout the globe.

“There is no notion of values that I have ever come across that is not reducible to a concern about conscious experience.” Really? How about the “notion of values” of Ancient Jews? Or of 5th century Athens?

Are not the “notion of values” of ancient jews and athens based on conscience experiences? If not… what were they based on?

He assumes that “adding cholera to the water” would “probably not be a good thing.”

I think the majority of the time this would be the correct assumption.

From a neurological perspective (MRI,CAT scan)”well being” will be understood just as science has allowed us to understand many of the things that we once looked to philosophers and religions to explain.

“You will know the truth and the truth will set youi free”…

I think science is gods way of enlightenment.

Kelly,

I was not presupposing that “they are kissing cousins.” I was _stating_ it.

That’s what a presupposition is: something unstated which is a crucial part of an argument.

What Harris presupposes, but never makes explicit, is an understanding of ethics, morality, or whatever you want to call it, is derived NOT FROM MODERN SCIENCE but from modern, enlightenment philosophy.

Kelly,

You ask, “What was the notion of values” for ancient Jews based upon, “if not upon conscious experiences?”

I suppose a Freudian psychoanalist might argue it was were based on _subconscious_ experience.

I might argue, however, that it was based on the communal drive to protect and promote the community of Israel, as well as a response to the activity of their covenant God in their communal life.

The point is that I am unwilling and unable simply to go along with is Harris’ assertion that all notions of values are based on conscious experience.

That language is already cast is his thoroughly modern, enlightenment worldview, which, however, is not an objective “fact.”

Kelly,

You say that “the majority of the time” it would not be acceptable “to add cholera to the water.”

My friend, that is not good enough! The question is: when, and under what conditions, would such an act be morally appropriate? For example, would it be OK for Americans to do this in Abu Ghraib? How about for Nazi Germans to do it in Krakow?

Who gets to say? Modern scientists?

Modern science can never answer that question, any more than, say, software engineering can.

Matt,
You said, “What Harris presupposes, but never makes explicit, is that his understanding of ethics, morality, or whatever you want to call it, is derived NOT FROM MODERN SCIENCE but from modern, enlightenment philosophy.”

I would say Harris’s understanding has enlightned philosophical roots that are now pared with neural science. First we speculate, then develop a theory.
Most theories are first met with ridicule… Second, it is violently opposed… Third, it is accepted as being self evident.

Matt: “The point is that I am unwilling and unable simply to go along with is Harris’ assertion that all notions of values are based on conscious experience.”

I would argue that all of our values are based on a long history of cognitive experiences. Proposing some magical source of knowledge adds nothing to the human condition. We could argue that there has to be something more…but then again we could argue about the real color unicorns. Whats the point?

“to add cholera to the water.”
Who would decide? I guess it would always depend on the situation. If I could kill one evil person with cholera to save many (the old psychology train experiment) then “I” it would be good.

Modern science is quick to acknowledge it doesnt have all the answers…you cant say that for religion.

I enjoy the discussion!

Kelly, I can only respond to two of your points right now.

1. I repeat: who gets to decide if it is good to add cholera to the water? You? Me? The one with the most power, the biggest guns? Are you seriously saying that “it would be good” to do this if (in your fallible calculations) it would “save many?” Wow. That is almost exactly how the Nazi regime thought.

I think we need to do better than that. What about the dignity of the minority, for example (a question which certain versions of modern science, denying the reality of “dignity” cannot address)?

2. You say that religion claims that it has “all the answers.” Can you give me an example? In answering this I would ask you to limit your answers to people who are on a similar intellectual level with Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins. It seems that would only be fair.

Science is only an approximation of the truth and deals with theory. I think a huge problem with some Evangelical christians and some evangelical atheists is that they try to apply the theories of biological evolution, psychoanalysis, and other disciplines and apply those theories to other disciplines such as economics, anthropology and then commit the fallacy of argument from final consequences.
– the Nazi regime relied heavily on Christianity and considered their race as the race of the “elect” and religion was definitely wielded by the nazis in justification of the genocide of the Jews. What does “conscious experience” mean? And of all the modern advances in neuro science the main question remains unsolved how do physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience?

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