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Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge: Win Big Money!

Can you guess his secret?
Brother Luís Dias informs us that arch-atheist Sam Harris has thrown down the silken gauntlet. Pfffssshh! Or maybe it’s pfffthclunk? Because this one’s stuffed full of hope—to the tune of twenty large.

I neither joke nor jest: “hope” is the right word. For his glove is only potentially a Christmas stocking. More likely he’ll give away only a tenth the promised amount.

To explain. Harris is having a contest, inviting refutations of the central thesis to his The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. He says that if anybody can convince him, he’ll publicly recant his error and fork over the twenty gees. But in a fit of magnanimity, even if he doesn’t allow himself to see his mistakes, he’ll still sign a check for two thousand and publish the winning essay on his website.

The only dueling tool you’re allowed is one-thousand spare English words. Never mind it took Harris over fifty times that many. Which he used to entangle himself in a dense thicket of fallacy. So be of good cheer: a blade is a quicker and cleaner kill than a bludgeon. (Look at those metaphors fly!)

Here’s what you have to disprove:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

Anybody else notice that he started with an unjustified—and false—premise? Utilitarianism is one of philosophy’s walking dead. It was slain long ago, yet the damn thing doesn’t have the good sense—or taste—to fall down. Skip it. For now.

Harris provides himself a FAQ, of which the most interesting question is this:

2. Can you give some guidance as to what you would consider a proper demolition of your thesis?

If you show that my “worst possible misery for everyone” argument fails, or that other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be, or that my analogy to a landscape of multiple peaks and valleys is fundamentally flawed, or that the fact/value distinction holds in a way that I haven’t yet understood—you stand a very good chance of torpedoing my argument and changing my mind.

Notice he says only a “good chance”. Harris isn’t his own judge. He tapped fellow ardent atheist Russell Blackford who will judge the submissions and “evaluate” Harris’s response. Best of Irish Luck, Rusty. Hope you don’t need sleep. (Prediction: since this contest is on the internet, more judges will be recruited.)

Smart money says Harris won’t acknowledge his errors. He’ll have to pony up the two thousand (only one of which is from him; the other half of both prizes came from a secret admirer), but unless a miracle occurs best guess is he remains status quo ante contest. So let’s pray for that miracle. They happen.

I tease Harris, but at least a thou. of his own? Boy! Plus—salute the man!—he’s got the guts to do this in public. Even if he leaves on his blinders, there’s all those souls who will read the exchange and find happiness. Man, I’m so stoked about the whole thing that I vow to buy Harris a massive glass of Château Thames Embankment if ever we should meet (all I can afford; he can swap it for beer). I say this even though his statistics are rotten.

Who besides me is entering?

Here are his Official Rules. Submissions will be accepted here the week of February 2-9, 2014.

Postscript I’m not going to post my winning (or winnable) essay here until February 10th.

45 thoughts on “Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge: Win Big Money! Leave a comment

  1. “All questions of morality are amenable to scientific analysis so there is only one right answer to any moral question”. Is that it?

    If prefer Hilary Putnam: “If you want facts you have to go and look and if you want morals you have to choose”.

  2. The very first sentence that you quote is a fallacy.

    “Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe.”

    This is complete nonsense. Morality and values depend only on the existence of conscious minds that are capable of making moral/value judgements/choices.

    Consider a universe that is populated with conscious minds capable of experiencing various forms of well-being and suffering but none of these minds are capable of making moral/value judgements/choices. Morality and values could not exist in such a universe.

  3. MattS,

    Oh, no. No, no. For you have left out the Prime Premise, which is God. So even before He created conscious minds there was still that which was moral and that which was immoral.

  4. a complete account of the momentum and position in any Newtonian state will specify exactly how the state will progress over time, but a complete account of courage cannot tell us precisely what action will always count as courageous in any set of moral circumstances. A sign of this is that knowledge of physical laws does not require us to deliberate about what should happen in any particular state, but even a complete knowledge of moral laws requires us to deliberate about what should happen in various moral circumstances. Again, formulating physical laws and applying them in concrete circumstances are not usually two distinct activities requiring different skills, i.e. the same guy who formulates the law of gravity can point to all the instances of it, and verify them by mere sensation. But to formulate a moral law is a very different skill than being able to apply it in the concrete, which is (one reason) why we divide legislators from judges.

    To say the least, any success of these systems will require more than the system itself, and they all contain the seeds of their own destruction. The system must gradually become more and more byzantine in its attempt to scale universality down to the particular, but this only leads to greater moral bewilderment and confusion, thus making the whole process intrinsically self-defeating: if the law stays general, it is not applied to the particular; and if it tries to get to the particular, it becomes so byzantine and overwrought that no one can apply it to the particular.

    — James Chastek, Science and Prudence
    http://thomism.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/science-and-prudence-ii/#comment-16578

  5. Morals reflect values–and people’s values vary with context, and vary when someone else is the focal point of an issue vs. when they are the focal point of the same issue. This has been demonstrated via numerous examples, studies, exercises & so forth.

    The fallacy in all this is pretending that “morals” (however one defines the term) actually reflect WHAT PEOPLE WILL ACTUALLY DO. There are so many exceptions in actual practice (espoused morals vs. actual behavior) that the people who actually practice whatever noble moral values they espouse is pitifully few…round-off error.

    Harris is enticing some into demonstrating their arrogance by arguing a counterpoint as if it matters. It does not.

    Ultimately, the only thing demonstrated is that atheists do not violate certain moral precepts–a religious/divine basis–simply because they do not hold those precepts. As such, they are inherently less hypocritical in their behavior relative to their actual moral values.

    Or, as some wise guy is said to have indicated, atheists, by virtue of being “cold” in this area are inherently not “lukewarm” [behavior vs. espoused values]…and thus less likely to be spat away.

    Think about that.

    The inherent presumption–which is very wrong–underlying such debates as going on here is that an atheist inherently behaves more immorally than one who is not an atheist. That is false.

  6. YOS,

    Rats! Now I’ll have to split the money.

    Or many of us will have to split it. I wonder how many ties are allowed?

  7. Lets say God said it was ok for men to rape women, or that consenting adult teachers could have sex with their children, etc. Just pretend.

    Or, that Jesus’ stricter rules, vs. Moses (e.g. divorce, revenge violence [eye for an eye], all the conduct not only condoned but sometimes rewarded that is anathema today…etc.), were overturned to those easier criteria that Moses allowed?

    Would you change your values accordingly?
    Would you change your behavior accordingly?
    Would you endorse laws that would allow that, or, would you continue to endorse man-made laws for society based on the stricter code of conduct (given that doing so would not violate God’s new decree–i.e., that relaxing the rules did NOT mean people could not hold themselves to a higher level of conduct)?

    Or, would you look at society and judge what’s best based on what actually works, and, what’s in the best interests of society, etc?

    Bible-based codes of morality are clearly documented to be very fluid…changing with the times…pick the most abhorrent from the Bible and see if you’d actually want to endorse their practice, again, if God said it was ok–but not necessary–to do so.

    The vast majority of us would not go back to those earlier moral codes if given the choice.

  8. I’ll have to do something that I rarely feel comfortable doing. I’ll have to agree with you, Briggs. This is hubris on a grand scale. Reading the reviews on Amazon it appears that Harris has only addressed the easy questions and avoided any difficult or, heaven forbid, controversial moral questions. But even there he only asserts a solution and does not engage in any scientific analysis. There is also the question of enforcement and whether the use of force is itself moral. I will grant that I have not read the book and am basing my first thoughts on a quick scan of what is available on Amazon, but the idea that our present knowledge and control of human behavior comes even close to his claims seems absurd. If he was saying that in some far distant future such knowledge will exist to produce a moral utopia, maybe I could forgive him, except for the fact that in his many examples he claims to have the solution now.

    This seems to be that same basic error of central planning by an all knowing elite that we see in Keynesian economics and in statist politics in general – The Fatal Conceit. If we do not accept divine revelation, then we must view the development of moral systems from an evolutionary perspective, either biological or cultural. To throw this out and redesign it from the ground up will only lead to disaster.

    Maybe Harris should start small. If his approach is to work with humans then it must also work with animals in general. Let him develop the ideal moral system for dogs and show conclusively the following: (1) it is in the best interest of canine and not human welfare, (2) avoid the use of force since he has already ruled this out of bounds for people, and (3) produce a self propagating system that does not revert to unsupervised dog behavior without human oversight. Of course, he can not use breeding to change behavior unless that is his intent with people and he can not say that canine morality is already ideal without completely undermining his claim of human imperfectability. That is the Wish Replaces Thought moment, isn’t it. Maybe human behavior is already the best it is likely to get, this side of paradise or future evolutionary development. Then again the robots will take over before then, train us, and take us for daily walks. Something to look forward to, except for the neutering.

  9. Ken,

    You’re beginning to worry me, old son. What strange fantasies you have.

    Incidentally, one should never begin a logical argument with a false or impossible premise just to see what follows, because what follows is chaos, anything.

    Scotian,

    Here’s a talk Harris gave summarizing some of the book: link.

  10. Briggs, stop picking on Steven Pinker! Also, your link is scrambled again. We could consider your links as a puzzle – a little cut and paste and voila. The Clouseau remark has stumped me, but I must not forget the don’t ask, don’t tell rule for jokes.

  11. Scotian,

    I don’t know why, but when I cut and paste a URL in Firefox it often, but not always, strips off the “http://”. I don’t notice when I create the link.

    And I don’t need to pick on Pinker. He does a good enough job by himself!

  12. The fallacy in all this is pretending that “morals” (however one defines the term) actually reflect WHAT PEOPLE WILL ACTUALLY DO.

    The fallacy of that “fallacy” is that morals are not supposed to reflect what people will actually do. They are supposed to reflect what people are supposed to do.

    Lets say God said it was ok for men to rape women…

    The fallacy here is the supposition that morality is a set of arbitrary ukases by a socialist authority figure.

  13. According to the paragraph quoted, Harris’ key premise seems to be that morality and values can be somehow boiled down to facts about human well-being and suffering, which our minds can experience.

    So, imo, to logically conclude that “morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds” is a fallacy, one would need to attack his definition of morality and values. Quoting God? Don’t waste your time unless you can prove God’s existence, which would be your premise in this case.

    Well, what do I know… I haven’t read the book.

    Harris is admirable though.

  14. RE: one should never begin a logical argument with a false or impossible premise just to see what follows, because what follows is chaos, anything

    REALLY????

    In numerous analyses a reasonable assumption is that past performance is indicative of future performance (even though stock market forecasters say exactly the opposite).

    The bible shows God changed morality numerous times…why shouldn’t we assume He won’t do it again. And again. And again…

    That’s not a false or impossible premise–the proof of that is the frequency it’s repeatedly occurred. There nothing in any official reference indicating things will remain fixed.

    But never mind that.

    Rephrase the thought exercise to what’s entirely allowable: Why not apply morals permissible per the Bible, but long since rejected by [most] modern society?

    Like slavery…
    Like misogyny (numerous forms to choose from, pick some, or all!)…
    Like really harsh punishments…
    …so much to choose from!

    Morally repugnant now, but, still [like it or not], morally accepted by the Divine…(…unless things have changed & we weren’t told?)…

    Whatever basis for rejecting what is, still, permitted but since rejected must be coming from some exercise of what S. Harris calls “conscious minds” & ‘laws of Nature’ & science & so forth — locales in human brains because it ain’t coming from above.

  15. Okay, I have listened to the TED talk, but I have even less idea what Harris is claiming now then before. At least 90% of the talk is snark and enduendo and so that has to be stripped out first. Most of the remaining is special pleading of one type or another. Boiled down we seem to have: moral positions are amenable to scientific study and maybe someday morality will have the force of scientific law. Debatable I suppose but not overly controversial. This is the fall back position from which highly questionable forays into unknown territory are attempted as Harris uses this as a cudgel to bash anyone who disagrees with him on any moral issue. He can not wait for the science. He, personally, has the answer now or at least he knows that religious people are foolishly wrong. They may be, of course, but to assume that the future science of morality will support him and not his opponents is special pleading. But all this is a guess since I have no idea what he is trying to say.

    One other thing; he repeatedly said that acknowledging that it is possible to determine a moral code by scientific means is the first step to solving moral problems. I don’t believe that this is even remotely true. It is similar to the common belief that only optimists can solve problems. You must first believe! Sometimes, but never underestimate the power of pessimism. In any case, he leaves out the extremely important question of enforcement and the corruption of power.

    Maybe all morality comes from economics. That’s the ticket.

  16. re. Morality and values depend on the …
    Horse manure. Babies giggle and grand parents love babies.
    Neither condition requires the existence of a conscious mind.
    Blame God or blame chemistry but leave out this crap about intellegince.

  17. Ok, for all interested, I really advice all of you to go to his site and read extensively his points, his critics’ own points and his counter points. He makes a good summary of the best criticisms he has had so far and I think he at least believes he makes a good counter case.

    Anyways, today Sam Harris linked to a nice counter by Ross Douhat, here:

    http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/05/sam-harris-and-scientism/?_r=0

    Take in mind that this is the guy who accused Pinker with scientism.

    Also, the dude that is judging the contest may well be an atheist, but he was one of the harshest critics of his Moral Landscape book, so I think the choice is actually quite an honest one.

  18. Ken,

    “Rephrase the thought exercise to what’s entirely allowable: Why not apply morals permissible per the Bible, but long since rejected by [most] modern society?”

    It’s a common thought exercise that the religious know very well how to deal with. If you refer to vague “morals permissible” they’ll deny all knowledge. If you’re specific, they’ll divert you down into various technicalities and not answer the question.

    Try being specific – say, Deuteronomy 22:28 (or 21:10), or perhaps Judges 21, or Numbers 31. Or for an interesting role-reversed version, Genesis 19:30-33, which I guess partly makes up for by verse 8 of the same. But it won’t make any difference. It’ll be seen as an attack on the religion instead of an interesting moral hypothetical.

    And it is besides pointless and cruel. You know what they’re doing, and they know what they’re doing, so why go through the same old dance routine? Unless it is to pass the time with old friends.

    For my money, morality is an instinct that allows social animals to live together in communities – it is the set of rules by which they avoid intra-group conflicts, and thus gain the advantages of cooperation. A lot of social animals have them, from ants and bees to wolf packs, but humans are particularly interesting because the actual rules are mostly not hard-wired, but adaptive. Morality is like language, (and serves a similar purpose). It is instinctive to have a spoken language, and much of the grammar is hard-wired, but details of vocabulary – which sounds are attached to which meaning – are highly variable. Both morality and language are defined jointly by a whole community, individuals within it cannot simply make their own words and rules up without misunderstanding/conflict. But just as language evolves (although see Genesis 11 for the Creationist version) and we don’t speak the same language as our ancestors, so morality evolves to suit our changing society.

    It’s the same old ‘evolution versus creation’ argument shorn of its disguise. Old men who want the world to be as it was in their youth, with the same rules and rituals and words they themselves had to learn. But you need something external and eternal to justify it to the young, something less arbitrary than ‘because we say so’ or ‘because we’ve always done it that way’. The Creationist argument was *never* really about biology, (or astronomy) – why would anyone *care* how wasps first came about? The fear was always that if the world evolves rather than being created, that society and morality would too. Without Scripture as an anchor, we would drift blindly across the seas of morality into depravity. Many people feel the same way about language and grammar, as well.

    Morality is as easily subject to scientific study as language is. That doesn’t mean that science can scientifically define the ‘true language’ of which all spoken languages are mere corruptions. Linguistics cannot define any ‘absolute’ meaning of a sequence of sounds, determined by Natural Law – it is mostly about tradition and history. Morality, like language, serves a definite practical function, and is implemented by fairly well fixed biological structures, so there are constraints that cannot be breached. But like much of the natural world, the boundaries are not where we think they are, and are fuzzier than our simple categorizing brains can easily cope with. The world is not as we want it to be: the world is as it is.

    There is only one scripture we can know was written by the creator, and that is the Universe itself. We should read it with open eyes.

  19. I am entering, and have been working on my response for several days. I’m focusing on showing that “the fact/value distinction holds in a way that I haven’t yet understood”.

    My first draft exceeded the 1000 words, so I’ve meticulously stripped out excess verbiage and in its current incarnation, got it down to 792 words.

    I agree there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the 20K, but I want at least to have the chance to challenge him using an argument that perhaps no one else will be making.

  20. Out of the words at Nullius in Verba, is at least one cogent remark:

    “Without Scripture as an anchor, we would drift blindly across the seas of morality into depravity.”

    COMMENT: Good thing the R. Cath. Church is well anchored in its ancient tradition, with its magisterium, etc….where:

    – Pedophile priests are protected & concealed by that anchored institutions, but,
    – where those merely lobbying to have women ordained as priests, if they get too annoying, are excommunicated.

    Of course nobody really expects any institution to be “infallible” (even though that’s exactly what the R. Cath. Church claims its magisterium is)…but still…

    That example covers quite a bit of moral values–as actually put into practice–and actual practice (not philosophical musings) is what counts…because actual results count, not possibilities.

    There’s tons of such examples, both contemporary & historical…

    The fact remains, “WITH SCRIPTURE AS AN ANCHOR MANY ACTIVELY–and arrogantly!–BOTH EXERCISE AND PRESERVE & PROTECT DEPRAVITY CONSIDERED “IMMORAL” BY [almost] ALL CULTURES.”

  21. Ken,

    The Church does not practice what it preaches, true. But besides that (very old) point, this is a good example of what I’m talking about. Pedophilia as we would define it today has *not* been considered immoral by almost all cultures. Up until fairly recently in our culture, and in some other cultures even today, the line was drawn at puberty, which for girls is around age 8-13. Islam reputedly allows certain other sexual practices even earlier. The Bible, while it has a long list of very *strange* taboos it counts as sins, scarcely mentions it. And Japanese culture today is known for being notably tolerant of the idea. It is only in relatively modern times that we have developed this absolute mania about it.

    We drifted into this mania about pedophilia, and it’s likely that in centuries to come we will drift out again, and it will become, if not normal/acceptable, at least tolerated. It may even end up being treated as we treat homosexuality today (which has likewise been tolerated in numerous past cultures; more than many would like to believe).

    Having been brought up in a world where pedophilia is seen as the ultimate crime, it’s very hard for us to imagine that things could be otherwise. Surely such feelings of disgust must be universal and eternal? But what we feel for pedophiles is exactly what our forbears felt for homosexuals, or atheists, or eating ham. Times change, and morals change with them.

    If that bothers you, then you understand the feelings I was talking about.

  22. It wasn’t pedophilia. It was homosexual priests chicken-hawking adolescent boys (or “young adults” as we are pleased to call them). Technically, the term is ephebephilia. Pedophilia involves prepubescent children.

  23. This is an interesting discussion that I am coming to late, one of the perils of not reading Mr. Briggs’s blog regularly. A few quick points.

    My first general comment is that demonstrating that Sam Harris is wrong doesn’t strike me as difficult. Proving to Sam Harris’s satisfaction or to the satisfaction of one of his peers that he is wrong is a task worthy of a $20,000 prize.

    Second, MattS nails it when he says:

    Quoting Harris: “Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe.”

    and then responding:

    “This is complete nonsense. Morality and values depend only on the existence of conscious minds that are capable of making moral/value judgements/choices.”

    “Consider a universe that is populated with conscious minds capable of experiencing various forms of well-being and suffering but none of these minds are capable of making moral/value judgements/choices. Morality and values could not exist in such a universe.”

    Of course, Sam Harris could never endorse this point, because he is a determinist, who denies the existence of human free-will. However, in the absence of a free-will that allows a person to make moral choices, a discussion of moral values is nonsensical. When the wind blows over a tree that then kills a person, no one would say that the tree acted immorally. It could not have done otherwise. Ultimately, in Sam Harris’s view of human nature, the person who murders another human being is no different from the tree. He could not have chosen to do otherwise.

    Thus, MattS is exactly correct that alk of moral values and duties is incoherent under Sam Harris’s deterministic view of human nature. To speak of moral duties and values that should govern the actions of humans makes no more sense than speaking of moral duties and values that should govern the conduct of cats and dogs.

    Lastly, I find it interesting that Sam Harris observes, “Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds.” Perhaps he is using his terms loosely, but I thought Sam Harris denies the existence of “minds” as that term is commonly used by philosophers. Sam Harris believes we have physical “brains” that are deterministically ruled by the laws of nature. The “mind” , at least when used as a term of art by philosophers, is something apart from the physical “brain” that acts outside the rules of nature and thus makes possible libertarian free-will. Perhaps I am knitpicking, but it seems Sam Harris as a person who writes on philosophy of the mind should choose his words more carefully.

    Finally, as I understand Sam Harris’s position, he ultimately argues that moral good is that which contributes to “flourishing” of sentient beings. The term “flourishing”, however, is a value laden word that cannot be defined without appealing “a priori” to set an ordered set of values and moral judgments. Thus, defining moral good in this way really doesn’t help him make his case.

  24. “Of course, Sam Harris could never endorse this point, because he is a determinist, who denies the existence of human free-will.”

    I expect Harris would respond that determinism doesn’t have anything to do with it, and would instead object that the word ‘depends’ only implies ‘if’, it doesn’t imply ‘only if’. Matt’s point is that ‘only if’ does not apply, since there are other conditions *in addition to* the existence of conscious minds capable of suffering. Harris, I think, would argue that he didn’t suggest otherwise.

    “However, in the absence of a free-will that allows a person to make moral choices, a discussion of moral values is nonsensical.”

    Not necessarily. Consider for example Asimov’s three laws of robotics. This could be considered a ‘morality’ for robots designed to ensure that they don’t harm humans. The robots experience the rules in the same way humans experience morality, and the same sort of ‘deterrence’ reasoning applies to punishments for breaking them.

    We would still insist on implementing the rules even though the robots were perfectly deterministic automata – the moral rules are themselves a *part* of that determinism. We as humans think of them in moral terms. What exactly are they, if not moral rules? How are they justified? And if a robot calculates consequences, and decides between them based on such rules, what difference does it make that the calculation is deterministic? Actions are still either moral or not moral, depending on whether the rules are obeyed.

    “To speak of moral duties and values that should govern the actions of humans makes no more sense than speaking of moral duties and values that should govern the conduct of cats and dogs.”

    Cats and dogs have morality the same way humans do – although not nearly as sophisticated. It seems like an odd comparison.

    “The “mind” , at least when used as a term of art by philosophers, is something apart from the physical “brain” that acts outside the rules of nature and thus makes possible libertarian free-will.”

    Depends which philosophers you talk to. What you describe here sounds like supernatural Cartesian Dualism, which so far as I know is out of favour in mainstream philosophical circles (or at least, non-theological ones), although I’m sure there are still some hangers-on. Harris sounds like a physicalist, which is a fairly standard position but far from the only one. If you’re interested, see http://consc.net/mindpapers

  25. Consider for example Asimov’s three laws of robotics. This could be considered a ‘morality’ for robots designed to ensure that they don’t harm humans.

    No more so than the air bags in automobiles imply a morality on the part of cars to protect human beings from harm. It is not the intention of the car.

    The distinction of mind from brain is noted by Searle, Nagel, Lucas, and others. It does not imply Cartesian dualism any more than noting that a basketball is a sphere implies a dualism regarding the basketball.

  26. YOS,

    But Asimov’s robots *do* have intentions.

    Do you mean to say a sphere is something apart from the physical “basketball” that acts outside the rules of nature?

  27. NIV,

    But so do unicorns and ogres have intentions in fiction. That doesn’t make them real.

    And, yes, the sphere is (part of) the form of the basketball. Take it away and what’s left? A pile of orange rubber (if that’s what they’re made of).

  28. Unicorns and ogres have morals, too.

    “apart from” != “part of”. You seem to be arguing the opposite of what pauld suggested. Are you on *my* side?

  29. The sphere is the form of the basketball. It can be mentally abstracted from the basketball and considered separately, but it cannot be physically separated. It is not itself a material thing subjected to material causes. Animate forms are more complex than inanimate ones, but it is precisely that a basketball is a single thing and not a “dualism” that parallels the distinction between mind and brain. The whole organism uses the brain in the same way that it uses the stomach or the hand. Organs subserve the organism. The brain is not a privileged magic organ that somehow uses the organism.

  30. YOS,

    Quite so. “Minds are what brains do.” I don’t have a problem with mind being just one property of a brain, and that the words refer to distinct concepts.

    But the assertion I was commenting on was: “Sam Harris believes we have physical “brains” that are deterministically ruled by the laws of nature. The “mind” , at least when used as a term of art by philosophers, is something apart from the physical “brain” that acts outside the rules of nature and thus makes possible libertarian free-will.”

    I read “apart from the physical brain” as being *physically* apart – i.e. not a subset relationship, but mutual exclusion – i.e. Dualism. And “outside the rules of nature” as a specifically *supernatural* Dualism. And I assume the reason for making the distinction is the belief that the brain itself *does* follow the deterministic laws of nature, and so you need something else to preserve free will.

    However, I wasn’t intending to rehash the entire Dualism debate – all I intended to do was to put the positions pauld was putting forward into context. i.e. that the position he appeared to be imputing to philosophers sounded like Cartesian Dualism, which is not terribly respectable nowadays among philosophers, while Harris appeared to be arguing for physicalism, which still is. I was hoping that pauld would find the context and reference useful/interesting.

    Physicalism does allow for minds to be what brains do, and hence a separate concept, without being physically separate or supernatural or necessarily either non-deterministic or deterministic. If that was what was meant, then I see no contradiction with Harris’s deterministic stance.

    While I don’t agree with Harris, it’s for different reasons.

    Anyway, all I was doing was responding to pauld since he had missed the main discussion, and I thought his comment was interesting enough to be worth a bit of friendly conversation. I hadn’t meant to make such a big deal of it.

  31. In the spirit of friendly discussion, I will respond to Nullius in Verba:

    In response to my comment, ““However, in the absence of a free-will that allows a person to make moral choices, a discussion of moral values is nonsensical.”

    Nullius in Verba says “Not necessarily. Consider for example Asimov’s three laws of robotics. This could be considered a ‘morality’ for robots designed to ensure that they don’t harm humans. The robots experience the rules in the same way humans experience morality, and the same sort of ‘deterrence’ reasoning applies to punishments for breaking them.”

    I suppose our dispute comes down to how one defines “morality” “moral duties” and “moral responsibility”. I would argue that the essential element of these concepts is the ability to make free choices. If one believes as Sam H

  32. oops, I accidentally posted before completing my comment. Here is the rest:

    If one believes as Sam Harris does that free-will is an illusion and “you will do whatever it is you do and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise,”, then I think it is not possible to speak of human beings having “moral” responsibilities and duties.

    I suppose it is possible to define “morality” as a system of rules supported by rewards and punishment by which we try to influence human beings to act is ways we believe are socially advantageous. I don’t think, however, that this is what most people mean by moral duties and responsibilites.

    For example, I imagine I could capture a wild lion and through a system of rewards and punishments train it not to attack human beings. If my training failed, and the lion killed a human being, I would not conclude that the lion violated a moral code and acted immorally. I would conclude that the lion was not properly trained, but was not morally culpable.

  33. “I suppose our dispute comes down to how one defines “morality” “moral duties” and “moral responsibility”. I would argue that the essential element of these concepts is the ability to make free choices. If one believes as Sam H”

    Yes, there are different definitions, and choice is a requirement for moral responsibility in ours. It doesn’t have to be that way – for an example of how it might be otherwise, consider who is morally responsible for the damage caused by car accidents. If your car hits somebody else’s car due to a mechanical failure or some other accidental factor not through your choice, you (or your insurance company) will still pay. Choice is not required for one to be responsible for consequences *as if* one had been morally responsible, although one would probably not be blamed for it.

    Similarly, if your pet dog chews up your neighbour’s property, you are held morally responsible for the damage, although it was not your choice.

    “I suppose it is possible to define “morality” as a system of rules supported by rewards and punishment by which we try to influence human beings to act is ways we believe are socially advantageous.”

    Close. But it’s not decided by conscious individual choice, and it’s not entirely on utilitarian grounds either.

    I’ve found the best way of thinking about it is through the analogy with language. As language enables people to work together in cooperation by sharing plans, so morality enables people to live together in dense social groups by preventing conflict between their activities and ways of living. Each connects arbitrary actions to ideas: language assigns meanings to sequences of sounds, morality assigns moral values (‘good’ or ‘bad’) to sequences of acts and circumstances.

    But like language, morality is not *designed*. Nobody sat down and designed the different word endings to represent verb tenses, and got everyone to adopt them. Language develops *collectively*, as people try to be understood, and techniques vanish or spread depending on whether it works. Morality develops in the friction between people living together, as they try to compromise and avoid conflict without losing out too much, and the compromise is accepted or not. Like language, much of morality is arbitrary – it doesn’t matter where the moral boundary actually is so long as all parties agree to it. But like language, morality has large parts that follow relatively simple patterns and principles that we generalise from other cases (we could never memorize that amount of information if it didn’t). We have regular verbs, but we also have irregular ones. We have books of strict grammar, seeking to make language perfectly systematic, consistent, and eternal, and we have slang and neologisms that appear and either disappear or are absorbed into the mainstream. Morals work the same, as sub-cultures develop their own moral rules and boundaries, which either disappear or get incorporated.

    In virtually all respects, morality behaves in a similar or analogous way to language. And we have no problem studying language scientifically.

    “For example, I imagine I could capture a wild lion and through a system of rewards and punishments train it not to attack human beings.”

    A more familiar example would have been a wolf. Wolves are social animals, and have evolved a similar system of rules of behaviour to enable them to live closely together. Pack law, the rules of dominance and submission, and ways of signalling them. We take advantage of these rules in the domestication of pet dogs. In order to live harmoniously in a home with a dog, there have to be rules. The dog does not eat your dinner off the table. And you do not take the dog’s food bowl away while he is eating. You each have your own territories and possessions, rights and responsibilities. And as any dog owner can tell you, a dog that has broken the rules and knows it *acts* guilty and ashamed. They have broken the social contract! *Bad* dog!

    I think pet owners *do* consider their pets to be morally culpable, if they know the pet knows the rules. We obviously make allowances for their stupidity, but we fit pets into our instinctive human moral systems just as much as pets fit us into their pack hierarchy. The systems are compatible, because they essentially serve the same purpose.

    The driver for a shared moral system is frequent social interaction. A lot of animals are capable of it. The same principle can be applied as easily to programming computers or robots that need to work together, on networks, say. (They call them “protocols” instead, but of course the word “protocol” is itself derived from a word for a set of social rules.) I don’t think it’s anything like as mysterious as some people think.

  34. YOS,

    Legal responsibility is moral responsibility according to the morality of the government. (Or rather, the collective morality of past governments.)

    Don’t assume that because it’s not *your* morality, that it is therefore not *a* morality.

  35. Legal responsibility is moral responsibility according to the morality of the government.

    That does make it hard to disobey an immoral order, if such orders are ipso facto moral-per-government.

  36. Arguably it does if you are the government. Not otherwise.

    Trying to legislate morality is like trying to regulate English grammar – all that bunk about not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions. Disobeying an immoral order is like disobeying a ‘book’ grammatical rule that doesn’t fit how people actually talk, in the interests of more effective communication. Grammar changes, and the old rules are ungrammatical by the new standards. But the book version is still *a* grammar; a version of correct English.

    Likewise with law. It is *a* morality, but not necessarily the one people actually live by. The world evolves. Books don’t.

  37. Trying to legislate morality is like trying to regulate English grammar – all that bunk about not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions.

    Happily, there was never an English version of the French Academy to do that. Split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions were always part of English grammar. The rules against them were imposed by the heirs of the Renaissance who, in their worship of all things classical, sought to impose the rules of Latin grammar on an alien tongue. If anything, it shows that “official grammar” like “government morality” is a task worthy of Sisyphus in that face of natural law.

    Disobeying an immoral order is like disobeying a ‘book’ grammatical rule that doesn’t fit how people actually talk

    So if people in general actually permit the ownership of property in slaves, then it’s okay, and the law should enforce that? Truth to tell, I would regard an order to round up Jews for extermination as something more weighty than splitting an infinitive.

  38. “So if people in general actually permit the ownership of property in slaves, then it’s okay, and the law should enforce that?”

    According to their morality, yes. According to our morality, no.

    If most Germans the verb on the end of the sentence put, should English style guides that rule enforce? Should you your sentences reverse? Or is it, whatever the Germans think, still bad English?

    It has been said of Englishmen that they secretly believe all foreigners think in English, and mentally translate their thoughts into foreign when they speak. That they’ll understand if you speak loudly and slowly enough. (I’ve met people who genuinely thought Jesus spoke English, from having read the Bible, and were surprised to be told otherwise.) Believing that everybody experiences morality the same way is the same sort of cultural misunderstanding.

    That doesn’t mean you have to make allowances, though. People sometimes confuse this for moral relativism, which is an incoherent sort of meta-system in which each person’s actions are judged good or bad by whether it meets the actor’s *own* moral system, rather than that of the one judging. We judge things from the perspective of *our* moral system, and we should therefore unequivocally condemn things like slavery and genocide. It makes no *sense* to speak of “should” outside the context of a specified morality. But at the same time, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking genocidal slave-owners always see things the same way we do.

    From the point of view of any moral system, all the others are wrong. Viewed amorally from the outside, though, where all the different moralities are seen as equivalent, there are no value judgements and there is no “should”. From such a point of view it cannot in any way be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ that there are multiple moralities – it’s simply a fact.

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