Can science answer moral questions?

A bit of science and philosophy for today. Sean Carroll (physicist and outspoken atheist) and Sam Harris (philosopher and atheist) went to battle recently over Sam Harris’ TED talk entitled “Science can answer moral questions.” Well, you can guess what he’s arguing. Skepticism abound. Anyways, Sean Carroll commented in his blog, Cosmic Variance, and thus began this fascinating back and forth:

(1) Sam Harris: Morality can be answered with moral questions (video)

(2) Sean Carroll responds with a resounding heck no: The moral equivalent of a parallel postulate. (This is Carroll at his philosophical best, and he only gets better. What a guy.)

Sam Harris gave a Ted talk, in which he claims that science can tell us what to value, or how to be moral. Unfortunately I completely disagree with his major point.

He starts by admitting that most people are skeptical that science can lead us to certain values; science can tell us what is, but not what ought to be. There is a old saying, going back to David Hume, that you can’t derive ought from is. And Hume was right! You can’t derive ought from is. Yet people insist on trying.

(3) Sam Harris responds to all the critics of his Ted Talk, then Sean Carroll in particular (paragraph eight, I believe): Moral confusion in the name of science.

I was not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of “morality.” Nor was I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. Both of these would have been quite banal claims to make (unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution or the mind’s dependency on the brain). Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind. As the response to my TED talk indicates, it is taboo for a scientist to think such things, much less say them public.


I’ve now had these basic objections hurled at me a thousand different ways—from YouTube comments that end by calling me “a Mossad agent” to scarcely more serious efforts by scientists like Sean Carroll which attempt to debunk my reasoning as circular or otherwise based on unwarranted assumptions. Many of my critics piously cite Hume’s is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time.  Indeed, Carroll appears to think that Hume’s lazy analysis of facts and values is so compelling that he elevates it to the status of mathematical truth…

This is an amazingly wrongheaded response coming from a very smart scientist. I wonder how Carroll would react if I breezily dismissed his physics with a reference to something Robert Oppenheimer once wrote, on the assumption that it was now an unmovable object around which all future human thought must flow. Happily, that’s not how physics works. But neither is it how philosophy works. Frankly, it’s not how anything that works, works.

Oooooh attempted smackdown! When, actually, Carroll doesn’t just cite Hume, he also provides rational basis for agreeing with him. Just like if there was some rational basis for agreeing with some older scientific principle that has more recently been debunked, any good scientist would call it back to the table. In fact, this has happened before.

In the end, science is a game of possibly falsifiable ideas. If it’s not testable (as string theory currently isn’t, leading some to argue it isn’t worth studying) and doesn’t appear to ever be testable (one day string theory should be testable, we hope, which is why it is indeed worth studying), then it ain’t science. And, as Carroll mentioned, science can help one argue an opinion or moral, but morals themselves are not testable.

(4) Carroll then responds to Harris’ blog post: Sam Harris responds.

The crucial point is that the difference between sets of incompatible moral assumptions is not analogous to the difference between believing in the Big Bang vs. believing in the Steady State model; but it is analogous to believing in science vs. being a radical epistemological skeptic who claims not to trust their sense data. In the cosmological-models case, we trust that we agree on the underlying norms of science and together we form a functioning community; in the epistemological case, we don’t agree on the underlying assumptions, and we have to hope to agree to disagree and work out social structures that let us live together in peace.

And finally:

Needless to say, it doesn’t matter what the advantage of a hypothetical objective morality would be — even if the world would be a better place if morals were objective, that doesn’t make it true. That’s the most disappointing part of the whole discussion, to see people purportedly devoted to reason try to concoct arguments in favor of a state of affairs because they want it to be true, rather than because it is.

I like it when eloquent people battle.


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