Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Science and Moral Values

Here is an interesting talk by Sam Harris regarding Science and Moral Values. He challenges the idea that religion has the corner on values or meaning. Check it out.

47 comments:

  1. He responds to criticisms of his speech and discusses more about his points on his web page.

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  2. I have not paid much attention to Sam Harris. I learned today that "morality relates to truths that we know about what allows consciousness to flourish. . . . There are right and wrong answers to how well-being can flourish, and morality relates to those facts . . . We cannot tolerate differences in opinion about morality . . ." [in the light of well-being the flourishing of human life and consciousness].

    Thanks. I'll send the link on.

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  3. I missed the quote where Harris claims that "we cannot tolerate differences in opinion about morality". Did he actually say that? If so, then that strikes me as rather eerily and scarily fascist.

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  4. So is it "fascist" to have laws against abusing children?

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  5. I think it is fascist to assert that society cannot tolerate differences of opinion.

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  6. "I think it is fascist to assert that society cannot tolerate differences of opinion."

    I cannot tolerate differences of opinion about the immorality of abusing children, or murder, or slavery. And I'm happy to advocate and vote for locking up people who disagree with me about those actions.

    Turns out I'm a pretty intolerant person, actually, and I'm glad to live in a society that is equally intolerant of those things.

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  8. Fortunately, Alan, we have a First Amendment that guarantees free speech, so you don't get to decide which unpopular opinions are tolerated and which are not.

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  9. Why are those actions not moral? Why should we have laws against them? Because some things are objectively wrong. We can make decisions based on science and reason that they are wrong.

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  10. I was specifically objecting to what sounded like Harris's assertion that he will not "tolerate" opinions that he doesn't agree with. I haven't found the exact quote so I'm not clear if that is what Harris said or not.

    I certain find some opinions wrong, and find some opinions ghastly offensive. But I don't believe in censorship. But a recent comment suggested that people with certain opinions should be locked up just for having those opinions.

    And, for what it's worth, I think that capital punishment is murder, so maybe I should call for locking up people who advocate capital punishment. And I think that torture is evil, so I guess anyone who agrees with Dick Cheney on waterboarding should by locked up as well. This list of people who should be locked up for offending my deeply held values is starting to get pretty large.

    As for the "why" question, I wonder why there has to be an objective "why" that science can determine for what governs our moral values. Maybe that is the more interesting question.

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  11. We should have a quote and a context for what it is he is saying. What I gathered from the speech and his written response in my own words is that we don't "tolerate" wrong answers regarding, oh let's say the boiling point of water, as equal valid opinion.

    If Joe wants to believe Joe's own theory about the boiling point of water, fine. We will not put Joe's view in a science text book. We won't tolerate that opinion. We will ignore it, mock it, and demonstrate its inaccuracy. We don't tolerate it.

    Harris is saying we can have the same intolerance regarding questions of value (ie. abusing children, slavery).

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  12. "I was specifically objecting to what sounded like Harris's assertion that he will not "tolerate" opinions that he doesn't agree with."

    That's not what he said, at least no where did I see anything like that. I would suggest a more nuanced reading of what he's talking about, which is an objective (which he defines also) way of understanding morality without simply falling back on "because my religion told me so."

    But then, I'm a fascist who thinks child abuse should not be tolerated, so perhaps I'm simply being an apologist for another fascist? :) We stick together.

    But if child abuse is to be tolerated, surely my fascism can be overlooked as well?

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  13. Perhaps the quote people are looking for is this one:

    "We can no longer respect and tolerate vast differences of opinion of what constitutes basic humanity any more than we can take seriously different opinions about how disease spreads or what it takes to make buildings and airplanes safe, Harris insisted."

    Which isn't the same as not tolerating opinions. But it doesn't mean that we excuse a father killing his daughter because she was raped on the basis of cultural differences or some other silly nonsense.

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  14. What I gather from Harris' speech and his written response is that questions of value are not the domain of

    1) divine revelation, or
    2) pure subjectivity.

    We can through the use of scientific tools and reason determine questions of value or a spectrum of plausible values. We can objectively determine some "shoulds" or some "should nots."

    So, just because Joe's divine revelation tells him to abuse children, I can say that Joe is objectively wrong. He doesn't get a pass by claiming religion or his own personal subjective value or a consensus of a bunch of other screwballs who agree with him.

    Abusing children is against the well-being of a self-conscious humanity. It is wrong. We don't tolerate it and we don't tolerate a view that accepts abusing children as legitimate.

    That is how I understand Harris.

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  15. Thanks for finding that quote, Alan. Pretty tame and logical actually.

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  16. After hearing more of what Harris says, I see no reason to change my characterization of him and his views. And this probably why I react so viscerally to Harris.

    The idea that we can equate political ideology to scientific and empirically derived facts, that somehow the moral values that lie behind society's laws are equivalent to the scientific facts like the boiling point of water, is essentially an authoritarian (if not totalitarian) point of view. It has served as the basis of repressive societies for a long time. It also reflects a naive fallacy of scientism, and the idea that society can impose "correct" points of view on matters of vigorous public debate. He is committing a huge category mistake, trying to make science into something it is not.

    And Alan, regarding your comment, "But if child abuse is to be tolerated, surely my fascism can be overlooked as well?" Nowhere did I say that child abuse is to be tolerated. My objection is not to the existence of laws, but rather with claims that science can tell us what ideology to have. You seemed to be saying that people who advocate positions you disagree with should be locked up. At least that is what you appeared to be saying. There is a difference between having an opinion and committing a crime, the last time I checked. I object to the assertion that people with different opinions should be locked up. If you feel the same way, then I misinterpreted what you said, but that is not what you appeared to be saying.

    I will add that think that Harris sounds lot like Ayn Rand with all this talk of "objectively" determining what is right and wrong, and this is also why I think Ayn Rand was an idiot.

    which is an objective (which he defines also) way of understanding morality without simply falling back on "because my religion told me so."

    I think herein lies the crux of the problem. He is trying to solve a problem that he thinks religion tries to solve, and since he rejects religion, he tries to solve the same problem in a different way. This reflects, I think, the failure of his own imagination. But what if there is no "problem" that needs solving? People are attracted to fundamentalism because it offers absolute answers to complicated questions. Harris is just trying to do the same thing without religion.

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  17. MS says "I will add that think that Harris sounds lot like Ayn Rand with all this talk of "objectively" determining what is right and wrong..."

    The whole point of the TED talk was to suggest that we CAN indeed objectively determine what is right and wrong, just as we can objectively determine, as John mentioned, the boiling point of water. It is true that water will boil at a different temperate if it is at a higher or lower altitude, but again, we can objectively measure that, and so "opinion" has no place in the discussion.

    I don't know whether I agree or not that morality can be objectively measured, but I do see parallels to science - it was once considered perfectly acceptable for a doctor to jump off his horse and perform surgery. It wasn't until we discovered germs and understood, scientifically, objectively, demonstrably, the role of hand washing in eliminating germs that such a practice was changed. Simply because we changed our collective minds about something doesn't mean objectivity was not involved.

    And what Harris was saying about not tolerating differences of opinion is very simply that not every opinion has validity, and so we should not entertain every opinion equally. We've gotten into a deep trap by doing so. For instance, approximately 98% of scientists who study climate change agree that climate change is made significantly worse because of human actions. 2% disagree, yet their often crazy assertions have been given equal validity, and have caused significant delay in action that we may not have time to fix.

    Currently in Belgium, laws are being written to make it a crime to wear a burqa. France has already done so. Yet the two countries have differing reasons for doing so: one says it is a security issue, that an influx of fundamentalist Islam is eroding nationalism and creates security threats, while the other says it is a demeaning and outmoded form of religious intolerance against women. (Some are arguing that a burqa is part of a religious tradition, and should not be outlawed - that we should respect all religious traditions. Given that same argument, then we should also allow a conservative Muslim living in Brussels to have his daughter stoned to death because she has been raped. Such "opinions", religious or not, are not tolerated. They are not entertained. Harris is saying that such an idea should not be tolerated anywhere.)

    So, anyway, the overlying argument in the burqa debate seems to be one concept of morality versus another. Who's gonna win? Seems to me the best way to determine that is objectively.

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  18. By the way, MS - I agree that Rand's objectivist epistemology is a big load of bullshit.

    I think her notion of "objectivity" is really disinterest, i.e. we should be disinterested in the suffering or misfortune of others in much the same way that a maple tree is disinterested in the 99.99% of the seeds it drops that never grow into a tree. Of course, it is also disinterested in the .001% that DO grow, because it is, after all, a tree. Rand's philosophy is that everyone is responsible for their own welfare. Ebenezer Scrooge, before his epiphany, was an objectivist epistemologist. (I suspect most of the Tea Party people would be as well, if they really understood themselves - and OE.

    I really enjoy her novels, though.

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  19. Given that same argument, then we should also allow a conservative Muslim living in Brussels to have his daughter stoned to death because she has been raped. Such "opinions", religious or not, are not tolerated. They are not entertained. Harris is saying that such an idea should not be tolerated anywhere.

    Snad, I agree that such actions should not be tolerated. The point I was trying to make was that when you stone someone, that is not just an opinion, that is an action. My concern here is with free speech, and more generally the philosophical principle that you can objectively determine morality. I have never said that there should be no laws. I am simply saying that our values cannot be objectively derived by the scientific method.

    Rand's philosophy is that everyone is responsible for their own welfare.

    Yes, and she thinks that this philosophy is the result of an objective understanding of reality. Ultimately, though, it isn't objective reality but her own values that determined this philosophy. Her philosophical hubris is to conflate her values with objective truth.

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  20. MS - if you watch the TED talk again, I think you will see that Harris is not saying what you fear. Language is tricky!

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  21. Hey John!

    Thanks for this short video AND for the link to his website where he explains and expands on some of his thinking. For anyone who happens to read this, I highly recommend following the link John provides in his initial comment at the top of this page. Much food for thought to be had there.

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  22. Thanks Steve,

    Yes, there is a great deal of food for thought here. There is more interesting stuff on his website Project Reason as well as on the SUNY Binghamton Evolutionary Religious Studies website.

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  23. @Seeker

    I am simply saying that our values cannot be objectively derived by the scientific method.

    Who knows? You may be right. There have been many things folks have said we cannot do. It appears, however, that many of us are willing to try. Time will tell, I suppose, if we are proven to be wrong.

    The question remains:

    So then how do we determine our values?

    God? Ancient texts? If it feels good do it?

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  24. If I had a simple answer to those questions I'd be the best guru ever.

    I would suggest, though, that maybe we need to ask ourselves why the need to know how we get to decide final answers to these sorts of questions.

    I go through life enjoying certain kinds of art and music and literature without worrying about whether I am adhering to some sort of objective standard of what is good art versus bad art, and I don't worry that much about what leads me to choose what kinds of art I like and don't like. I feel that maybe we need to stop worrying so much about having absolute and authoritative answers. One reason I left fundamentalism behind years ago was precisely because I rejected this clinging need for an absolute standard of authority.

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  25. @Seeker

    You continue to overreact and overstate what is being asserted. We are not talking about authoritative absolute truth. We are talking about how we make decisions of value and can we use the tools of science and reason to make these decisions.

    As to why we should try:

    A simple reason is that values that come from religion, or personal subjectivity, or consensus do not necessarily lead to human well being.

    Harris gives a number of examples such as the burqa for instance.

    Here is my favorite part of Harris' response to his video:

    She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?

    Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing wellbeing—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.

    She: But that’s only your opinion.

    Me: Okay… Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human wellbeing?

    She: It would depend on why they were doing it.

    Me (slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head): Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, “Every third must walk in darkness.”

    She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.


    That's why.

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  26. Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing wellbeing

    Yes, that's what he thinks. Interesting theory. Philosophers have debated for centuries what the basis of right and wrong is, and now Sam Harris thinks that his particular take on it is "scientific"? Okay, whatever.

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  27. What are you saying?

    Right or wrong has nothing to do with well-being?

    You have a better answer?

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  29. I'm saying that maybe it does and maybe it doesn't. The question of what the basis of morality is has been debated by western philosophers ever since Plato. I think that the idea of the well-being of consciousness is interesting in the abstract, although what it means when we get down to details can be very complicated, because when you have competing interests and conflicting needs and when one conscious person's well being has a different agenda that can be achieved at the expense of another conscious entity's well being, or when neither conscious person's well being can be achieved at the same time without hampering the other's, then that is when the real questions of morality begin, in my opinion, and I think that these sort of problems involve subjective parties and cannot be easily, if at all, be resolved by the impersonal and objective standards of science.

    I am no expert on philosophy or on the branch of philosophy that deals with morality. There's a Wikipedia article on the subject that claims that that modern western philosophy is divided between consequentialist and deontological theories about morality. This is all fascinating, juicy stuff, and I absolutely not very knowledgeable on any of it.

    What I am saying is that it seems to me that Sam Harris has a theory about morality, perhaps one worth taking seriously, but one which he also seems to be trying to grant a greater degree of legitimacy to over other theories by claiming that his is scientific.

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  30. This last discussion points exactly to what Harris is saying, I think. MS repeats that philosophers have been arguing for eons about what constitutes morality. All opinions have been entertained, and so the debate goes on. And meanwhile, so do the burqas, and the stonings, and the marginalization of GLBTs, and the cutting off of hands when workers don't produce enough, and on and on.

    When Harris speaks of scientific objectivity in determining morality, he is talking about using the best information we have in front of us to determine what actions and laws will maintain the greatest measurable well-being for the greatest number of people. That includes ending laws based on religious superstition as well as working towards sustainability.

    It seems, MS, that you're stuck on the notion that Harris is advocating fascism, and it also seems apparent that you just don't like the guy, and so argue that all opinions must be entertained... except his. Hard to get past that, eh?

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  31. I would point out that he goes out of his way to define what he means by objectivity, and it is nothing like how it is being characterized here.

    Just because two people use a word with the same root (objectivity & objectivist) does not mean they're using it in the same way. Language contains nuance.

    In addition people are certainly confusing thought vs. action.

    Though on the matter of moral thought, if someone came to me and stated that they have no moral problem with child abuse, but that they've never done anything about it, yet they do not find it morally objectionable, I'm not sure what my response would be. But what I do know is that my response would *not* be to say, "Ok that's OK, all opinions are equally valid, and I'm tolerant so your opinion is just fine, blah, blah, blah."

    Sorry, no, I would not be "tolerant" of that. I may be open minded, but no so open minded that my brains fall out. But certainly there's nothing to criticize about my position if one is "tolerant", eh?

    (And what that has to do with good or bad art, I have no idea. He didn't even mention aesthetics in his talk.)

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  32. Where ever we land on this, Harris certainly does provoke us to clarify our own ideas.

    Thanks, Seeker, for engaging in the conversation! I appreciate you, my friend!

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  33. Alan said "But what I do know is that my response would *not* be to say, 'Ok that's OK, all opinions are equally valid, and I'm tolerant so your opinion is just fine, blah, blah, blah.'"

    EXACTLY!

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  34. Sam Harris is a very interesting character. I know from observing my own responses and reactions to him that I tend to either agree with his thoughts very much or think, "What the Hell does THAT mean!?"

    I doubt that we are on the verge of realizing a new era of "Scientific Morality", but on the other hand I think that we are well past a time when intelligent and rational people can comfortably retreat into a default mode of "moral relativism". Like John, I was particulary impressed by Harris' recounting of the conversation he had with the polymathic academian who endorsed the notion of 'eye plucking', if it was done in accord with a culturally endorsed religious belief system. While we may not be able to realize a perfectly objective system of morality, I do think we can sufficiently approximate objectiivty to allow rational people to dispense with "moral relativism" as a carte blanche for moral behaviour.

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  35. I did not say that all opinions are equally valid. On the contrary, I said that some opinions deeply offend me. What I said was that all opinions have a right to be expressed.

    It is one thing to use the example of child abuse as a more or less universal constant of human morality. If all moral issues were as easy to characterize and as universally agreed upon as child abuse, philosophers would not have spent the last few millennia trying to wrestle with the complexities of human morality. The problem is that a vast number of moral problems are not as universally shared or as easy to give right and wrong answers to. And there's a reason for that.

    I also want to point out that I am not dismissing out of hand Harris's description of the well being of consciousness as the basis of morality. What I am rejecting is his claim that this is a scientifically derived definition of morality and therefore a priori superior to other philosophical explorations of this subject (and I think it is naively arrogant of him to claim that it is), and I further would argue that as an abstract principle Harris's definition tells us almost nothing about the moral questions that that arise when dealing with individuals who have competing interests and values.

    It is true that Harris annoys me. If he had not gone down the path of positivism I might have considered his exploration of the the idea of the well being of consciousness more interesting. It isn't a stretch to compare that concept with the Whiteheadian moral philosophy involving the increasing the value of experience. I like serious exploration of these sorts of things, even though I am obviously not a philosopher myself. Perhaps one reason Harris annoys me is that when I was in college I used to embrace the sort of positivistic outlook that Harris advocates. For me it's a case of been there, done that.

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  36. On Harris’ web site he writes in his Me-She exchange:

    “Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing wellbeing”

    Personally, I think Harris’ response here and elsewhere to “She” and his subsequent analysis of the exchange shows a great deal of naiveté on his part. Nowhere in his discussion does he ever attempt to define what it means to increase or decrease wellbeing, what the measure of it would look like, how it is to be measured, and at what point(s) in time it is best to be evaluated.

    I get the impression from reading his web site and listening to the TED presentation that he thinks that the best and obvious trajectory would be one that removes all burqa wearing requirements immediately. What he doesn’t seem to consider is the possibility that such a trajectory, even though carefully considered and gently executed, could have the unintended and possibly unforeseeable consequence of resulting in the irreversible demise of the human species within the following twenty years.

    I’m not thinking in terms of any particular scenario, and I’m not trying to place any probabilities or likelihoods on this, but I am thinking in terms of fundamental, objective, scientific, physical principles. In particular, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that it is physically impossible to simultaneously determine the complete state of current existence to arbitrary precision or have complete knowledge of our current trajectory. The farther into the future we look, the less certain we become. It’s somewhat easier to predict on a large scale, but on a smaller scale, almost anything can happen (one guy could get his hands on a really big bomb, or a really nasty virus, and mess things up for everybody, or something like that).

    Fundamentally, I like the idea of maximizing wellbeing. What it ultimately comes down to for me is, what the heck does that really mean?

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  37. @Arthur

    Thanks for joining the convo! I think there is a difference between saying something is right or wrong, or increases or decreases well-being, and developing strategies to do something about it.

    I am not sure how we might identify and measure indicators of well-being. But because I don't know how it doesn't mean no one ever can.

    I can imagine off hand things that indicate well-being would include food, shelter, education, healthcare, lack of violence, autonomy, political freedom, self-respect, sense of contribution, fulfilling work...

    Don't we measure these kinds of things already?

    Harris' assertions are really not that wild or impossible. We already do it.

    He is saying that as opposed to relying on supernaturalism, pure subjectivity, or cultural consensus, we can make some moral judgments based on science and reason.

    Saying the burqa does not benefit human well-being does not mean a specific strategy for changing the situation. I think it is good to start with step one. Can we say it is right or wrong and then is it right or wrong?

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  38. I think there is a hesitancy to consider Harris' views because we might think to a mad scientist determining right or wrong from a test tube and everyone being forced to obey the scientist. That is science fiction.

    Science (in the broad sense of understanding nature that includes human nature) is used to provide values. Think of psychology. It has proven to be very helpful in assisting human well-being. Isn't that discipline an aspect of science? Of course psychology makes value statements. It offers a wide spectrum of the good, but it distinguishes pathology (bad) from health (good) and seeks to move folks toward health.

    Harris is inviting us to be more assertive and confident about what we already value and not to get lost thinking we need to protect superstition (whether individual or collective) at all costs.

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  39. John,

    I think you missed my point. What I was trying to get across was that it might not be the best strategy to maximize wellbeing at every step along the way (even if we knew how to quantize it). That could lead to a dead end, and we might not see that coming in time to avert it.

    By the way, I am a scientist, and I don't have a fundamental fear of them.

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  40. Science is enlisted all the time to serve purposes that have a moral implication, both good and bad. That doesn't mean that science is telling us what is morally right. In fact, the opposite--scientific research in these areas are often driven by our agendas which often have moral components.

    When scientists work on weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear bombs, for example, is it the study of the workings of the atom that tells them that it is okay to build a destructive device that kills thousands of people? Of course not. There is nothing about the study of nuclear physics that tells us anything whatsoever about the morality, one way or another, of using what we learn the atom. The rightness or wrongness of using atomic weapons is not found inside the atom but rather inside our own consciences.

    The same goes for the study of organisms and their pathologies, both psychological and physical. We can study humans and determine that some people do not function well physically or that some people are not happy. Knowing that another person is not well in some way says nothing about how we should respond to that, or whether or how we should use science to address that situation. The impulse to help another person to find greater fulfillment or to cure their diseases does not come from the scientific study of human bodies or human minds. That is putting the cart before the horse. It is the moral impulse that drives the scientific research and the application of that research, not the other way around.

    I am reminded of that 80s movie "Real Genius" (a fantastically funny movie starring Val Kilmer) in which college students are busily studying laser technology as something interesting to them without realizing at first that their research is being used to build a weapon. They came to realize that their scientific research was not indifferent to its outcome. The science didn't dictate the morality of what they were doing--they responded morally to the science.

    One of the interesting things about psychology is that it has often been polluted as a science by introducing moral considerations into scientific conclusions. Before 1973 or so, psychologists in the US considered homosexuality to be a pathology. They changed their mind. The psychology of homosexuals did not change--the same people who were "pathological" one day suddenly were not on the next day.

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  41. Fundamentally, I like the idea of maximizing wellbeing. What it ultimately comes down to for me is, what the heck does that really mean?

    I think this is a very good question. As an abstract principle, it sounds nice, but how do we implement this in practice when in the real world the same situation could simultaneously impact two different people's well beings in opposite ways? In fact, this happens all the time.

    And how do you objectively define "well being"? Are there different kinds of well being? How do you balance short term well being versus long term well being? Physical well being versus psychological? My well being versus yours? And how do we maximize it? Do we seek the highest average well being of all conscious beings? Or do we seek to give everyone the same well being as much as possible? Is there a minimum level of well being below which no one should fall? And how is science supposed to decide this for us?

    I am reminded of the great story by Ursula Leguin, "The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas", which posed the question of whether it is morally right for the vast majority of people in a society to thrive even if the way this is possible is that one or two people will live in squalor. In the story, most people found this acceptable because the person living in squalor was beyond help anyway, but some people found this unacceptable and walked away from the town.

    I would like to believe that I would be one of those who walks away from Omelas, but the real point is that I defy science to be able to tell us whether we should say in Omelas or leave.

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  42. And for those who have not read the LeGuin story that I referred to, it can be found here in its entirety (it's not a very long story and it's not a very conventional one. It is more of a fable than a story, really.)

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  43. Thanks Arthur, gotcha. I wasn't referring to you being afraid of scientists. I agree in regards to trying to implement well-being.


    Seeker,

    In fact, the opposite--scientific research in these areas are often driven by our agendas which often have moral components.

    So where do these moral components come from?

    The impulse to help another person to find greater fulfillment or to cure their diseases does not come from the scientific study of human bodies or human minds.

    Maybe, maybe not. These characteristics could have evolved. Evolutionists are discovering amazing things about human beings all the time.

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  44. @Seeker

    Those questions you ask about well being are good ones. Just asking them doesn't mean that answers cannot be attempted.

    Daniel Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea takes a stab at some of them.

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  45. I appreciate all the comments on this thread from various viewpoints.

    One of the many pitfalls is "Greedy Reductionism" as Daniel Dennett puts it. This is claiming too much. That certainly can be the case as we are explaining more things via naturalistic means. To what degree morality can be understood via naturalistic means is certainly susceptible to that pitfall.

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  46. Or perhaps claiming too much precision or being too specific as to what we can claim?

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