Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The arrogance of science.

We have not read Sam Harris's new book, the soon-to-be bestseller, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, but we have watched his TED lecture on the subject, and read Appiah's review in the Sunday NYT and we're pretty sure we're not likely to read the book.  But of course that isn't stopping us from having something to say about it.

Two things disturb us about Harris' argument.  (If you've read the book and can tell us that reading it would change our minds, please let us know -- we'd love to be wrong on this.)  But as we understand it, Harris's argument is both arrogantly imperialistic -- or worse -- and non-Darwinian, which is rather ironic from someone arguing that science will out the Truth. The 'logic' of the argument is to put together intelligent-sounding phrases that have little actual content....especially little scientific content.

Best known as one of the New Atheists, Harris has written previously on how he knows there is no God.  He argues in his new book, and in the lecture, that only science can answer the questions of life's "meaning, morality and life's larger purpose" (as quoted in the review).

Which prompts us to ask, Where is existentialism when we need it?  Better yet, let's call it Darwinian existentialism.  If we are truly to take the lessons of Darwinian evolution to heart, we must accept that there is no "larger purpose" to life.  The only purpose to life, which we don't ourselves construct, is to survive and reproduce.  And even that is not a purpose to life itself, which to an arch Darwinian might be not to survive, so something better can do it instead.  Or to expend solar energy in some particular way.  To argue otherwise is to position humans above Nature, which is precisely what Darwin and his contemporary supporters argued was biologically not so (though even Darwin fell into that ethnocentric trap in Descent of  Man).

Further, if we accept Darwinism in the raw, there is no meaning or morality for science to find. Meaning, morality and purpose are constructed by us once we've got food and a mate. As animals with history and culture and awareness of both, we imbue our lives with values and morals and meaning, but they are products of the human mind.  This doesn't mean that they aren't important, or compelling, or even things to live or die for, but those judgments are our own.  But people with the same genome can adopt very different sense of meaning -- which is equally important and compelling.

According to Harris, science can uncover not only facts, but values, and even the 'right values'.  Just as science can tell us how to have healthy babies, science can tell us how to promote human 'well-being'.  And "[j]ust as it is possible for individuals and groups to be wrong about how best to maintain their physical health," he writes, as quoted in the review, "it is possible for them to be wrong about how best to maximize their personal and social well-being."

What is this well-being of which he speaks?  Who says we or anyone should 'maximize' it, and who are 'we' in this context?  Well-paid professors?  If he meant Darwinian fitness we might pay attention because that's the only objective measure of success that counts in a Darwinian world (unless it's ecosystem expansion, even if at the expense of particular species).  But what he means is something much less empirically tangible -- ironically for someone arguing that science will find it.  He means happiness.  This would be perfectly fine in the realm of psychology or Buddhism or philosophy, but, to our minds, this argument of his is on the same playing field with religious arguments about morality and purpose -- which of course he would not accept -- and even pre-Darwinian.

And, it wasn't that long ago that Science decided that homosexuality wasn't an illness to be cured, or that phrenology wasn't in fact enlightening, or that bleeding patients wasn't a cure -- and of course there are many other such examples.  When what was once True becomes False, what does this say about Science and its ability to find the ultimate Truth? Why would anybody think we're right today....unless it's from ethnocentric arrogance?

The Enlightenment period was the age in which the belief grew that modern science could be used to create a better world, without the suffering and strife of the world as it had been.  It was a world of the Utopians.  Their egalitarian views were opposed vigorously by the elitist right ('we're just scientists telling it like it is')  in the form of Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spencer, strong Darwinians, who opposed the more idealistic thinking.  The Science Can Find the Moral Truth view grew through much of the 19th century, but its consequence, 'modernism', was rejected after science gave us machine guns, carpet bombing, eugenics, the Great Depression, dishonorably wealthy industrial barons, and other delights of the 20th century.  The reaction to that went under various names, but included things like cultural relativism and anti-scientific post-modern subjectivism.  Unfortunately, like any Newtonian reaction, the reaction was equally culpable, if less bloody, in the opposite direction, by minimizing any reality of the world.

Cultural relativism, against which Harris rails, is the view that each culture is a thing of its own, and we can't pass judgment about the value of one culture over another, except as through our own culture-burdened egotistical eyes.  That is not the same as saying that we have to like someone else's culture, nor adopt it, nor need it be a goody-goody view that we have to put up with dangers from such culture (like, for example, the Taliban).  But there is no external criterion that provides objective or absolute value.   Racism and marauding are a way of life in many successful cultures; maybe by some energy consumption or other objective measure it's best for their circumstances.  Science might suggest (as it did to the Nazis and Romans and some groups today) that their way is the only way, the best way, Nature's chosen way.

Science may be a path to some sorts of very valuable Truth, and better lives, such as how to build a safe bridge or have painless dentistry (the greatest miracle of the 20th century!).  Regarding many aspects of our culture, we would not trade.  We ourselves would love to attain the maximum happiness that Harris describes.  But it is an arrogance to assume that in some objective sense that is 'the' truth. 

And what if the 'facts' said that to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number (not exactly an original platitude, by the way) meant that people like us (and Harris) had to cut our incomes by a factor of 100, or 1000, for resources to be equitably distributed?  After all, the USSR implemented 'scientific' ideas of maximal good for the masses (communism, Lysenkoism, to the tune of tens of millions purged, frozen to death in Siberia, or starved because of failed harvests, and more).  The Nazi policies were explicitly based on the belief that Aryans were simpler better than others, based on warped Darwinian truths, and we know what happened.

So, anyone who would still not realize that the smug self-confidence that one can find the ultimate truth through science either is another tyrant potentially in the making, or hasn't read his history.

Whether or if there can be some ultimate source of morality is a serious question and if it has an answer nobody's found it yet.  Religion has no better record than materialistic science, nor secular philosophy.  Nor does Darwin provide that kind of objective value system, especially in humans where very opposed cultural values can be held by people toting around the same gene pool.

The Darlings of the Smug rise, like mushrooms, in every society.  They are glib, but so are demagogues of other sorts.  They're all potentially dangerous -- or are those for whom they serve as the intellectual justification.  Again, that is not to say we should adopt someone else's values, nor that we should hold back from defending ourselves against those who threaten us.

Still, oblivious to these points, Harris argues, as does the far right in the US, that cultural relativism is wrong and should be completely and utterly discounted.  Here are some quotes from his TED talk:
How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count?  Does the Taliban have a point of view on physics that is worth considering?  No. How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of human well-being?  The world needs people like ourselves to admit that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing, and morality relates to that domain of facts.  It is possible for individuals and even for whole cultures to care about the wrong things.  Just admitting this will transform our discourse about morality.
Again, how is this different from, say, the Aryan line which would say we have a right to decide and purge, all in the name of science (and, by the way, it was medical science as well as Darwinism)?  Why is this not the arrogance of imperialism all over again?

When the Taliban, the religious right and the likes of Harris and the New Atheists all believe that only they are the keepers of the Truth, dominion can be attained not by science but by wielding of power alone.


  1. I think you may have overlooked some of the nuanced arguments of Harris's arguments. He starts with the premise that when we're making moral considerations about actions, what we're really doing is making judgments calls about the "flourishing" (sum total of physical and mental well-being) of conscious creatures. If you don't accept this premise, then I guess that is a non-starter for you, but instantly comparing him to Nazi's is alittle hyperbolic. Surely this is not how Nazi's evaluated morality.

    Harris then goes on to say that the level of flourishing relates to states of the being's mind (brain), and that in principle (though not yet in practice) you could compare those brain-states to create an objective criteria for evaluating morality. This objective moral criteria (of which this is his first attempt) is important to establish if we ever want to be able to work toward the same goals and fix problems with people of other cultures.

    Now, I haven't read his book yet either, but I've read all the same commentary. Is there something I've said that you disagree with? Is there anything in my description that supports your statements?

  2. In a way your message answers itself. You assume that some criterion, such as universal happiness, which perhaps some day could be _measured_ by science is a _desired_ state. But that is a value judgment made about a (possibly) objective measure, and that's the point we make.

    The idea suggests that we in our culture have some right to decide what's good not just for us (which is fine, and we would personally agree, but is nonetheless a judgment not 'science'), but that we decide what other people should do, too. That's imperialism, isn't it?

    Whether people really mean what they say about the desired state is doubtful and belied by history. The greatest good for the most people is an old slogan (as is the similar 'to each according to his needs, from each according to his ability') and it's not that different from Herbert Spencer's social Darwinism.

    But to gain such quality of life, in the purported form Harris advocates, would require society to be more egalitarian than it's ever been...even after 300 years of Enlightenment claims that science will fix things. We don't think there's an iota of evidence in human complex societies that this would ever work. To be egalitarian, truly, the standard of living of the professors and authors of the world (us) would have to be reduced by 100 or 1000 fold (or more). Or must some people be more equal in happiness than others?

    As to likening this thinking with Naziism and not just long-dated Utopian scientism is certainly fair. First, such movements begin slowly, their dangers dismissed until it's too late. We would not have to copy the Nazis' (or communists', or eugenicists') specific modus operandi but these other movements were sincerely based in belief in (or rationalized in terms of) science. Meld that with the usual arrogance of power, and it doesn't require evil intent (but take a look at the people who are falling in line with arch-right thinking these days).

    Ours is not a defense of religion, nor an attack on science. It's a comment on ethnocentric fundamentalism and the presumptive arrogance that, no matter how softly stated, goes with it.

    It is important to realize the difference between how we're wired, and the independence of culture from neurobiology. If we simply just go along with the latest scientistic fad, then we never learn from history. That's probably a true fact, but we feel it should be resisted anyway.

  3. Well, to be precise, I didn't say happiness. I said "flourishing," which isn't the same thing. It may be very true that periods of unhappiness actually contribute to overall well-being. There is much debate over the precise definition of this, but the idea dates back to Aristotle (Greek: Eudaimonia), but more modern proponents include John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and Princeton ethicist Peter Singer.

    And there is a chance I'm wrong about this, but I don't think Harris is saying that we should be concerned with human flourishing, he is saying that we ARE thinking about human flourishing when we make considerations about moral actions. The two are one and the same. And not just Westerners, every society composed of conscious beings. Harris seeks commonalities between very different conceptions of morality, and finds them all fundamentally centered around changes in the level of flourishing of conscious beings. Your profiles says you are an anthropologist, Ken, so do you have a counter example?

    Now, changes in behaviors and emotions (as they relate to flourishing) are tied to material changes in states of the brain. I doubt you disagree. Of course we can't do it yet, but in principle, we may one day be able to understand the relationship between those brain states and flourishing.

    As Harris's title implies, there are many peaks and valleys on his proposed moral landscape, each corresponding to net increases or decreases of human flourishing. It may be that there are many ways to flourish - that there are many peaks of equal height - but there are many MORE ways to not be on a peak. Harris doesn't believe that there is one way that societies should behave to be functioning morally (Note that he didn't name his book "The Moral Continuum"), but he is seeking to find an objective, quantifiable way to compare actions, and place them on their respective locations in that landscape. He may have failed, but there is nothing imperialistic or evil about this attempt.

    As far as I know, Harris doesn't say anything about egalitarian societies. That would be your assumption that equality improves flourishing, but as you pointed out, history suggests this isn't true.

    You also make the comment that 300 years of the Enlightenment has failed to "fix things." I assume you're forgetting "things" like the large-scale eradication of diseases like small-pox or polio. Are things perfect? No. But I would argue that the enlightenment has certainly made more progress than the alternative. Organized religion's attempt at fixing things has had more than 2,000 years, yet conversations about morality in those circles are still centered around topics like in which direction should you face while praying, or how much of a man's penis should be removed. Call it scientistic if you want, but striving to understand cause and effect in the material universe is the best tool we have right now.

    I think your last paragraph gets to the crux of the different viewpoints. Harris, who just earned his PhD in Neurobiology from UCLA, probably doesn't see culture as independent of the mind. Rather he (and I) see culture an emergent property of our minds and how they are wired. Culture is a function of our brains (which in many ways are wired in response to our experiences and environment). It may be true that Taliban women really do like having their genitals mutilated and acid thrown in their face -- if this were true then their brain states would reflect that and they might be places on comparable moral peaks. But if it isn't true, then Harris has proposed an objective way of saying that those practices are less moral than alternative practices.

  4. Yes, well, we differ and much of that is a matter of opinion, and probably not changeable.

    To argue as many do, that culture is not independent of the mind is either to misunderstand what that means, or to trivialize the material determinism. The same gene pool can be a democracy or a tyranny, can speak English or Chinese, can drive on the right or left, can believe in different kinds of moralities. This isn't denying the materialism of the brain (or 'mind', whatever that means), but saying that what people do is not predetermined in their brain wiring, and hence the ideas of what is 'good' really are not to be found in neurobiology. Whether 'good' refers to happiness, or flourishing, or stoning adulterers. The prediction from neuron to culture is just weak at best. It's true, but trivial (for this particular subject), that minds are made of interconnected neurons.

    Nobody, certainly not I, would deny some aspects of science-based progress. We mentioned painless dentistry to represent that. But that only applies to some of the world, and that part keeps the other parts of the world in exploited destitution (at least, science could eradicate it in, say Somalia or most of India, if it so chose...but that is where we clearly don't so choose. The explanation is in the will, not the science.

    And others would argue that although we have Novocaine and Nachos, which are nice, we also have nuclear bombs which aren't, so to speak. To say that it isn't yet perfect is to assert that science will eventually, or could realistically, fix it all up. I say there's no evidence that it will.

    But _could_ it? We can all imagine that, at least in principle. But such imaginings-in-principle were just the nature of the Enlightenment, of Spencer, of Darwin, of Marx, and Eugenics. That is just what they said. And that's why I, at least, say we should all be on guard against the extension of science to areas where it doesn't belong (but if it can make cancer go away, that's great, and my own research is, in its own feeble way, an attempt to understand things that could better humankind,etc).

    Anyhow, clearly we see things differently, and maybe that is part of democracy....and a sign of flourishing.

    Science has not done what the Utopians promised, which was about social life, not technical life.

    We can measure 'flourishing' with fMRI's perhaps (I doubt it, but it's not my field), but that isn't the same as making society all flourish. If it doesn't apply to everyone, than promises like Harris' are self-serving, or the equivalent, judgment-based, and hence subjective.

  5. Check out Sam Harris hawking his book on The Daily Show. Link via Why Evolution Is True from here. Almost makes me want to read the book...

  6. I'll pass. This is how cults, and then tribes, and then their consequences begin, with thrilled but unquestioned following of icons, and thought put on hold (thinking isn't as much fun as attending rallies).

  7. No, OE, Harris on The Daily Show doesn't convince me to want to buy the book. Or change a single word of this post.

    And coincidently, we've been rereading The Great Gatsby, and just last night came across the following, written in 1925:

    “Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?”

    “Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.

    “Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

    “Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we ——”

    “Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

    “We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.

    “You ought to live in California —” began Miss Baker, but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.

    “This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and ——” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again. “— And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization — oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”

  8. "Almost" was the key word in my last comment.

    Anyone have a spare "sarcasm" emoticon to spare? Harris' comments were politically "correct" (in my own little world of politics and Gnu Atheism, anyway), but 'twas remarkably vacuous (and less than funny) otherwise.

  9. Point taken. It's a glaring hole in the emoticon lexicon, it's true.

  10. The disturbing aspect is the way an icon is born of vacuity and polarizing stridency (in the latter case, about atheism).

    One can be in science, or one can be led to atheism from the experience of being in science, without being presumptuous and extending that to cult status.

    One can ask 'how much can we learn about how the brain works and how that relates to culture, to religious practice, etc.?' in a totally legitimate way. But that's not the same as proclaiming that everything will be known through that kind of science.

    Of course, as long as we reward vacuity with wealth and cult status, we can't blame the beneficary, nor be jealous that it's him, not us. If we feel such jealousy, we just have to start making outrageous or simplistic statements and claims and see if we're good enough to become cult figures!