Sam Harris has published his response to my winning essay in the Moral Landscape Challenge. I’d like to thank Sam for issuing the challenge and replying to my essay. I’d also like to thank Russell Blackford for all his hard work as contest judge.
In my essay, I say that Sam has “not brought questions of ethics into science’s domain.” I claim that ethics remains a “distinctly philosophical, not scientific” endeavor. My claim implies a distinction between science and philosophy, which in turn implies a difference in what we mean by “science” and “philosophy.”
In Sam’s response, he opens with the meaning of “science.” Here I reply to his remarks. In a future post, I’ll say more about the other two parts of Sam’s response, in which he talks about ethical theories and the meanings of “should” and “ought.”
- An empirical/conceptual distinction between science and philosophy (300 words)
- Sam Harris’s three defenses of his broad definition of “science”
- The foundation of science (700 words)
An empirical/conceptual distinction between science and philosophy
Sam argues that the “science” in his book’s subtitle is not science “bureaucratically construed.” Rather, it is a “domain of justified truth-claims” apprehended by “processes of thought and observation that govern all our efforts to stay in touch with reality.”
I do not assume a bureaucratic idea of science. In my essay, the science/philosophy distinction I invoke is epistemological. Science conducts empirical investigations and makes descriptive discoveries. Philosophy pursues conceptual questions and can offer normative (which includes prescriptive) answers.
Seen as marking off areas of emphasis or specialization, the empirical/conceptual boundary can be crossed. (Bridging the descriptive-normative divide is something I’ll cover in a future post.) Experimental philosophers, like Joshua Knobe and Eddy Nahmias, cross that border when gathering data on people’s intuitions about the self, free will, or other philosophical issues. Moral psychologists, like Paul Bloom and Jonathan Haidt, cross it when designing experiments to study the development and use of moral concepts.
However, arguments and the truth-claims they aim to establish can be paradigmatically scientific or paradigmatically philosophical. For instance, Sam’s “worst possible misery for everyone” argument best fits the mold of moral philosophy: it analyzes a fundamental evaluative concept (moral “badness”) and stakes out a metaethical position (moral realism). In contrast, his argument that belief processing involves the prefrontal cortex best fits the mold of neuroscience: it defends a hypothesis that links particular mental processes to particular brain states through systematic empirical testing (even if his findings prompt, as he claims, conceptual reflection on the fact-value distinction).
As quoted above, Sam’s broad definition of science implies a difference between “thought” (conceptual) and “observation” (empirical). Elsewhere in his response, he again nods to a difference between “conceptually valid” and “empirically valid” methods for determining truth. Nevertheless, he omits any differences in epistemological emphasis or specialization that, in my view, distinguish science (empirical) from philosophy (conceptual).
Sam Harris’s three defenses of his broad definition of “science”
Sam makes at least three attempts to obviate criticisms of his capacious conception of science. Below I summarize and respond to each attempt.
Science is a synonym for the unity of knowledge
Sam claims that science, broadly construed, refers to “the unity of knowledge.” Describing this unity, he writes:
[T]he boundaries between [academic] disciplines are mere conventions…[W]e inhabit a single epistemic sphere in which to form true beliefs about the world.
To help illustrate this idea, Sam offers an analogy. He compares ‘truth boundaries’ between different fields of study to political boundaries on maps. There’s no real boundary between some neighboring states—just shared terrain, such as a desert or a forest. Sam says there’s likewise no real boundary between neighboring disciplines like “physics and…biology.” When Sam speaks of “non-contiguous disciplines,” such as “physics and sociology,” the analogy changes. He doesn’t compare their terrain (natural vs. social) to deserts or forests. Instead, he compares it to “different colors on the map” for different states. He says he’s convinced the significance of these colors and, by analogy, the difference in facts of distant disciplines is an “illusion.”
But it remains unclear why we should be convinced. I’m pointing to the line between the sciences (natural or social) and the humanities, particularly philosophy. The territories I identify are empirical and conceptual. If you’re deep in the former, you’re doing science. If you’re deep in the latter, you’re doing philosophy. And if you travel between the two, you cross a border that isn’t merely conventional.
Even if there is a unity of knowledge across academic disciplines, it remains unclear why we should call that unity “science.” After all, it would be a unity of knowledge from the sciences plus philosophy and the other humanities.
There’s “no telling” what questions science will address
Sam claims we cannot predict where and how seemingly non-scientific projects will become “entangled” with the sciences. As Sam suggests, sometimes questions pursued by, say, historians (who asked whether the Shroud of Turin is from the first century) will come to be pursued by, say, chemists (who answered using radiocarbon dating).
Even if some questions first raised outside of particular scientific disciplines can unforeseeably fall within their domain, it doesn’t follow that all questions about reality should be (preemptively?) placed within science’s purview. Sam nonetheless endorses the conclusion that science is the sole arbiter of reality.
It’s an irrelevant semantic choice
Despite giving what look like earnest arguments for his broad definition of “science,” Sam seems to dismiss this dispute as semantic quibbling. He writes:
The whole point of The Moral Landscape was to argue for the existence of moral truths—and to insist that they are every bit as real as the truths of physics. If readers want to concede that point without calling the acquisition of such truths a “science,” that’s a semantic choice that has no bearing on my argument.
The first sentence reveals that Sam’s book has a philosophical objective. He intends to defend moral naturalism. In Sam’s words (taken from his “central argument”), moral naturalism makes two claims:
- “questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers”
- the answers in (i) “depend on… natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe”
However, the “depend on” in (ii) doesn’t quite capture the connection Sam sees between an objective morality and the natural world. Sam argues for analytic moral naturalism: statements of moral fact conceptually reduce to statements of natural fact. Put another way, the definitions of moral terms, such as “good” and “bad,” are given by descriptions of the natural world. For Sam, the relevant descriptions refer to peaks and valleys of conscious experience on the “moral landscape.”
If analytic moral naturalism is correct, then calling the “acquisition of [moral] truths a ‘science’” is not a mere semantic choice that’s irrelevant to Sam’s argument. Rather, it’s the conclusion. Like uncovering the facts of physics, finding the truths of morality will “fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice).” Sam uses those words to complete the quote in (i). And that quote is, in fact, the conclusion of Sam’s argument for the existence of moral truths.
I don’t object to calling normative ethics “science” if analytic moral naturalism is correct. But I wouldn’t call arguing for any of the following claims “science.”
- Analytic moral naturalism is correct.
- Well-being is the only thing of intrinsic moral value; it encompasses all other moral values.
- Morally right actions maximize collective welfare.
Sam argues for all of the above. In fact, these are the most crucial claims he makes in The Moral Landscape. And they are all philosophical claims that elude scientific (read: empirical) demonstration. Science cannot “determine human values” as Sam envisions unless philosophy establishes his core claims—especially the second claim that all human values boil down to well-being.
Contrary to what Sam seems to suggest, I’m not thinking about the architecture of universities or any other aspect of science “bureaucratically construed.” I’m thinking about the architecture of reality, which I consider integral to “the nature of reality,” Sam’s stated interest. If the work of reconstructing reality is ever complete, the edifice that emerges may well stand, foundation to spire, within the natural world—science’s domain, ontologically speaking. Epistemologically speaking, the blueprint will trace a complex composite of concepts spanning various levels of analysis (e.g., moral, social, psychological, biological, physical, natural). The coherence of those concepts and, where possible, the bridging of those levels of analysis will depend crucially on work best called philosophy, no matter where on campus it is conducted.
The foundation of science
In answer to my renewal of the Value Problem objection, Sam renews his response to critics that science cannot derive any judgment, moral or otherwise, “solely from a scientific description of the world.” His emphasis, however, has shifted from the necessity of foundational values to that of foundational intuitions, with our basic notions about causality now in the mix. I don’t protest this shift. Values and intuitions may overlap, and Sam’s appeal to science’s dependence on the latter is found in his book. In my essay, I try to show that (quoting Sam) “other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be.” I may have given readers the impression that Sam thinks this: like other sciences, a science of morality will be foundationally self-justifying. Sam makes clear in his response that he in fact thinks this: no science is foundationally self-justifying and thus no science of morality will be.
I’m uncommitted regarding whether “the epistemic values of science are ‘self-justifying’.” In my essay, I simply try to paint a coherent picture of what it would mean to convince Sam (or others) of that claim. When I write that “science [can’t] appeal to health to defend health’s value, as it would appeal to logic to defend logic’s value,” I don’t say the latter appeal will be successful. Perhaps it’s viciously circular. But logic is both a concept and a tool for justifying concepts, so it can be coherently, even if unsuccessfully, applied to its own defense. The same can’t be said for health. In any case, I don’t intend to hold Sam’s science of morality to “a standard of self-justification that no branch of science can meet.”
I also don’t deny that epistemic axioms “do far more than motivate scientific inquiry.” I say those axioms “merely motivate scientific inquiry and frame its development.” That is, they perform merely two tasks. To frame science’s development is to, as I say, “direct science to favor theories that are logically consistent, empirically supported, and so on.” To me, that idea sounds like Sam’s claim that epistemic axioms “determine what we find reasonable—or even intelligible—at every stage of [scientific] inquiry.”
In my essay, I criticize a comparison Sam makes in his book’s afterword. Below I’ve updated that comparison to include intuitions. I’ve also restated my criticism.
Sam’s science of morality assumes parity between
- valuing truth, logic, evidence, and health; intuiting the contours of rationality and causality
- valuing well-being—such that all moral values reduce to well-being
I challenge that assumed parity. The analogy fails. Well-being’s value, as conceived in (b), doesn’t have the axiomatic status that Sam ascribes to the values and intuitions in (a). What’s more, a science of morality, I say, requires parity between
- scientific theories—such as physicists’ competing ‘theories of everything physical’
- ethical theories—which I’ll call philosophers’ competing ‘theories of everything moral’
If physics were to presuppose that string theory is correct, it would commit the deeply unscientific sin of asserting a fundamental, revolutionary finding that it hadn’t actually made. If Sam assumes that science will elucidate moral reality by identifying the correct ethical theory, his science of morality commits that same sin when it presupposes that welfare maximizing consequentialism is correct.
Sam need not accept the parity I propose between (c) and (d). He could reply that moral philosophy, not science, identifies the correct ethical theory. It would just be the case that, in his view, moral philosophy—as guided by intuitions he finds “non-negotiable”—has demonstrated that welfare maximizing consequentialism is correct.
Indeed, perhaps The Moral Landscape is best interpreted as follows. For Sam, the philosophy is done and the science (especially the neuroscience) has already begun. Debate in metaethics can be closed: analytic moral naturalism has prevailed. Debate in normative ethics can likewise cease: welfare maximizing consequentialism has bested its deontological, aretaic (i.e., virtue ethics), and fellow consequentialist competitors. Just as natural philosophy long ago became the natural sciences, moral philosophy now becomes the moral sciences. More precisely, it becomes the science of well-being.
In my next post, I’ll see what I can do to keep moral philosophy in your local university’s budget.