If I engage a believer in a conversation about faith, I will most likely get a story about miracles.   Belief in miracles is the cornerstone of faith for most people, and this has always struck me as somewhat peculiar.  If we take faith, by definition, to be belief that extends beyond the scope of justification, it is odd that virtually every person of faith holds miracles up to be a good reason, i.e., justification, for believing in God.  It is especially odd in light of the fact that belief in miracles would only count as good evidence for belief in God if that belief is itself justified by evidence.  In other words, the occurrence of miracles only counts as good evidence of the existence of God if there is good evidence that miracles have occurred.  I don’t think that there is any good evidence for the occurrence of miracles, but I don’t see the point in showing the error of specific claims of miracles with a magnifying glass and a flashlight.  Belief in miracles is never justified because of what a miracle is. The following is a brief explanation of this problem.

Sometimes the word "miracle" is used loosely, e.g. "Every baby is a miracle," or "Getting an ‘A’ on my test was a miracle."  But when people appeal to miracles in a theological debate, they mean breaks in the laws of nature.   If science can predict and/or explain an event, we don’t take it to be miraculous.  Instead, believers hold up events that appear to be scientifically inexplicable as evidence for Divine (supernatural) intervention.   The reasoning goes like this:  This event can’t be explained by appeal to a natural cause, so, the better explanation is that it must have been caused by something supernatural (God). In order for this argument to be sound, the believer must demonstrate that the following presumptions are justified:

A) Every natural (physical world) event must be caused by some previous event.

B) Super-natural (non-physical) entities can cause physical events.

C) The best explanation for mysterious events (ones without an obvious natural cause) is that they have a supernatural cause.

If any of these assumptions fails, then the conclusion that a miracle is the best explanation for a mysterious event is not justified.  And, if belief in miracles is unjustified, then belief in God based upon the "evidence" of a miracle is also unjustified.   So, let’s look at at whether these assumptions can be defended.

Assumption A is close to being an axiom of science.  Though most scientists would agree that some quantum events don’t appear to be caused by anything, the assumption that physical events are caused by prior physical events is fairly uncontroversial on the level of everyday observable phenomenon.   If your car starts making a thumping noise and the mechanic says there is no cause, you find another mechanic, you don’t question causal necessity.  So, for the time being, let’s bracket Assumption A and take it for granted.

Assumption B sounds reasonable if you’ve never considered the meaning of the word "cause," but it falls apart under conceptual scrutiny.  The concept of a non-physical cause is problematic because our normal use of the term pertains exclusively to events in the physical world.  For example, the heat of the liquid caused the cold glass to shatter, or the finger on the trigger, caused the gun to fire.  These are physical causes.  It is difficult to imagine what a non-physical cause for a physical event could be.  Some might argue that beliefs are the non-physical cause of actions, but if beliefs were non-physical causes, then manipulation of the brain wouldn’t necessarily affect either beliefs or actions, as we know it does.  The fact that brain states, not the stated beliefs of the agent, are the best predictor of action demonstrates that there is a physical cause underlying the phenomena.   It also illuminates another problem with appealing to non-physical "causes," namely that they are explanatorily useless.

This brings us to Assumption C, which is really the foundation of the miracles argument.  People believe in miracles when they conclude that an act of God/magic is the best explanation for a mysterious event.  This begs the question, "How does positing the existence of supernatural causes explain anything?"  When we assume that physical events are caused by previous physical events that follow patterns of law-like regularity we are able to make lots of predictions that enable us to navigate the world.  So, Assumption A is practically useful.  The truth (or approximate truth) of A is also the best explanation for why we are able to make consistently successful predictions when we assume it.  In contrast, Assumption C is neither practically useful nor likely to be true.  We can’t predict anything new by positing that there are supernatural interventions into nature, and the best explanation for why supernatural explanations are consistently replaced by natural explanations (e.g., hearing voices is schizophrenia, not demonic possession) is that supernatural causes aren’t real.

We don’t have a good reason to believe in miracles because we don’t have a good reason to believe in supernatural causes.  In fact, the whole notion of a non-physical cause is conceptually confused.  Saying ‘God caused the event’ is just as explanatorily informative as saying ‘nothing caused the event’, and we have no more reason to believe in the former than in the latter.  It is, of course, possible that there are are supernatural interventions into nature, just as it is possible that some events are entirely uncaused by anything, but neither of these assumptions jibes with the majority of our experiences, and neither of these assumptions tells us anything useful about the world.

Positing the occurrence of miracles is never the best explanation for mysterious events.  We have lots of reason to believe that strange events can and will be be explained by natural science because so many previously mysterious events have been explained by science.  But even if we can’t explain the physical (natural) cause of an event, we have no good reason to believe it was supernaturally caused.  The possibility of a miracle doesn’t answer any questions, it just begs them.

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Happy Birthday to Us

birthday-cake It was one year today that I made the first post on this blog.  Since that time this blog has covered a range of topics dealing with the nature of science, the virtues of “thinking too much,” the problems of vaccine and climate change denialism, various issues surrounding the tension between scientific and religious communities, and much more.  I’ve enjoyed the work I’ve done on here, and I’ve particularly enjoyed working with my blogmate, Liza.  Though we were friends before this endeavor, we’ve grown even closer over the past year to the point that it’s difficult to imagine my life without her in it.  For her friendship, intelligence, and wit I am truly thankful.

I don’t know what kind of readership I hoped to pick up during this time, but I don’t think we’ve done too poorly.  I have a few people with whom I correspond semi-regularly because of this blog, and it’s been interesting hearing their feedback on the topics on which I’ve written.  I hope to continue these relationships and develop others.  I am by no means so arrogant as to think that I know everything.  I know all too well that I could be mistaken on any topic.  For that reason, I have no fears associated with correction, and, indeed, I welcome it.  Dialogue is good, and finding out I got something wrong just means I have a better chance of it right by process of elimination, if nothing else.  So, if you think I screwed up on something, let me know.

Liza and I both plan on continuing our work here for quite some time as well as possible expanding to other projects.  She and I have discussed adding a podcast, and, loosely, it looks like that’s a go.  I’ll say more about that as we get closer to actually getting something out there.

If anyone has any suggestions or requests for topics, just let us know.  You can contact us via Facebook at our fan page listed to the left or individually at our personal profiles which can be reached by clicking on our pictures on the “Authors” page.  Don’t forget to add us on Twitter, either.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading us so far.


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If You’re a Homeopath, Why Do You Sell Anything?

I want to do my part to spread the word about World Homeopathy Awareness Week, but it’s difficult to think of anything interesting.  (WHAW is a very real event put on by homeopaths for the purpose of telling everyone about homeopathy.  Check the link.)  I’ve written on here before about the terrible consequences of trusting your and your loved-ones’ health to this pseudoscience, so I have little to add in that respect.  Also, there isn’t much I can add to the arguments and analyses provided over at Science-Based Medicine.  The most I can do is offer a brief explanation of homeopathy, embed a couple of well-known videos put out by homeopaths that purport to explain the mechanism of homeopathy, and raise an issue that seems obvious and which has always bugged me, though I don’t pretend that it’s original.

First, homeopathy is supposed to be a medical treatment.  It is based on the idea that “like treats like,” also called the “law of similars.”  This is the idea that, if you want to cure something, you need something that is similar to your ailment.  Something that causes an ailment in large doses will cure it in small doses.  For example, popular homeopathic sleep remedies contain highly diluted caffeine.  Caffeine causes sleeplessness, so it can cure it as well.

This brings us to the idea of dilution.  That’s how homeopathic remedies are supposed to get their power, by diluting it with water, and succussion, which is just shaking the diluted substance forcefully.  Not only is the substance diluted, but the more diluted it is, the stronger it is.  Most homeopathic remedies are diluted to such a degree that not a single molecule of the original substance remains.  Water is supposed to have a memory, so that’s not a problem for the homeopath, however.  Something of interest is that one popular homeopathic remedy for the flu, Oscillococcinum, is supposed to be diluted by 1 part per 10−400.   To give you an idea of just how diluted this is supposed to be, there are an estimated 1080 atoms in the whole observable universe.  Doing the math, that would require there be 10320 more universes to simply have one molecule in the final substance (pointed out by Robert Park in his Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science).  Now that’s diluted!

That, then, is the rundown of homeopathy.  You take something that is in some “like” your ailment, dilute it to the point that it no longer exists, and this cures you because the water in which you diluted it has some kind of “memory”  that allows it to retain the healing powers of that substance…but only when it’s not there.

If you’re shaking your head at this and wondering exactly how this is supposed to work, I can do no better than to post videos from homeopaths themselves.

I’m hoping those of you reading this know enough basic science to understand the complete absurdity of the claims in those videos, because they are just nutty.

So, here’s my question, then.  If water is able to remember all the substances that it dilutes long after no molecule of that substance remains, then, as the water we drink has had all that stuff in it at some point, we should be able to drink tap water and get all the healing effects one would find in any homeopathic remedy they purchased.  For example, if I were suffering from insomnia and wanted a sleep aid, I should be able to drink tap water as it certainly is merely the result of sophisticated filtering processes that remove substances that were in it, and lots of caffeine has been poured down drains, so that water should have the memory of the caffeine.  If homeopathy is correct, I should never suffer from sleeplessness at all.  That goes for all the other remedies as well.  All that stuff has been in the water that eventually gets to my tap at some point, and it has been diluted to such a point that no molecules of those substances exist.  That should make it perfect for everything.  I should be in perfect health as long as I drink water from the tap regularly.

What’s funny about that is that homeopaths should know this.  Hence, there is absolutely no need for them to sell anyone anything.  As such, even if they are not hucksters in the sense of trying to sell you a product that does not work, they certainly must be in that they are trying to sell you a product of which you already have an ample supply.

If homeopathy is correct, then we don’t need homeopaths at all.

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Does Calling for the Pope’s Arrest Betray the Skeptic Movement?

The day before yesterday, the UK’s Times Online put up an article with the headline “Richard Dawkins: I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI.”  This set off a flurry of posts, especially on Twitter, by skeptics on the issue.  Some thought this was great; others thought it was terrible.  As it turns out, the headline was, unsurprisingly, a misstatement of Dawkins’ actual involvement in a plan by a group of human rights lawyers who are hoping to have the Pope arrested because of his involvement in a systematic cover-up of the rape of children by Catholic priests.  Dawkins clarified this here.

What is so odd about this story is that many members of the skeptic community, some prominent, worked to show their discomfort at being associated with this activity.  The general feeling seems to be that it would be detrimental to the skeptic “movement” if skeptics endorsed the attempt to have the Pope arrested as it would smack of something like religious intolerance.  There is a strong wing of the skeptic community that wants to put as much distance between themselves and the “new atheists” as possible for fear that being seen as atheists will damage attempts at social outreach.  Of course, not everyone feels this way.  Rebecca Watson makes her stance on the issue very clear here when she says,

So is this effort going to somehow hurt the “skeptical movement?” You may notice that I use the quotation marks here, because I can’t bring myself to seriously consider a movement supposedly based on the defense of rationality that would turn its back on children who are raped by men they trust because those men claim a supernatural being gives them power, wisdom, and the keys to eternal life with a direct line to God’s ear. If we discovered that a world-famous psychic was leading a secretive cabal that protected child rapists, would we be silent? If a world-famous faith healer was using his heavenly persona to molest kids, would we say that it’s not our fight? You might. I couldn’t.

I’m gonna have to go with Rebecca on this one.  I absolutely think skeptics should take a stand on this position, and it should be that the Catholic Church should be held accountable for their systematic cover-up and protection from prosecution of priest who raped children.

There are two questions at issue, here.  First, is it appropriate for skeptics as a group to get involved in human rights issues?  Second, it is the place of skeptics as skeptics to address the issue of the Church’s active participation in the cover-up of child rape by Church priests?

The answer to the first question seems obvious:  of course.  Lots of organizations involve themselves in efforts to protect and improve their community, even when such activity falls outside any sort of “mandate” about the express function of those organizations.  The example I’ve been using since yesterday is that of cheerleaders.  The express function of cheerleaders is to cheer, engender school spirit, and support their school and their school’s sports teams.  Yet, cheerleaders often do much more than this.  They are often involved in going to retirement homes to visit and bring food to the elderly.  They often have drives to collect food items to deliver to shelters for the poor and homeless.  They do all sorts of things that go beyond the specific function for which their group was created.  That said, how odd would we find it if someone inside or outside such an organization stood up to criticize that group for these actions?  It would be nothing less than shocking if some cheerleader told her peers it was inappropriate to collect toys for children at Christmas merely because it was beyond the mandate of cheering.  Yet, this is exactly the kind of argument that is being presented by those skeptics who suggest that skeptics as a group should refrain from participating in or voicing support for any action to seek justice for some large, though unknown, number of children who have been raped by those whose job it was to protect and guide them.

I cannot help but notice some level of something like hypocrisy on this issue.  No one complained when SHARE (Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort) collected money for aid in Haiti, for Katrina victims, or for those who suffered because of the Asian tsunami.  Certainly, organizations such as the Center for Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and Skeptic magazine, among others, are examples of skeptics as a group collectively acting in a way that is well beyond the purview of their charters.  Even so, no one stood up and exclaimed, “No, we should not give money to Haiti.  We are skeptics, not humanitarians.”  Indeed, had anyone done so, I expect they would have been roundly criticized for expressing such a bizarre opinion.  It is simply the case that groups often involve themselves in community activism, regardless of their primary reason for existence.  As such, it is just a very strange sort of argument to suggest that skeptics as a group are prohibited from supporting an action seeking justice on behalf of children who have been raped only to have the rapists protected by their parent organization, an organization who exists for the purpose of doing things like protecting children.  It looks to me that anyone complaining about that is worried about something else.

As to question two from above, I also think it is appropriate for skeptics to address this issue as skeptics.  This is for a couple of reasons.  First, skeptics are people engaged in the practice and promotion of critical thinking.  Critical thinking is most needed when the details of some particular issue are messy enough that it is hard for people to tease apart the big problems from their own prejudices about the issue.  It would be difficult to imagine an issue that is more entangled than a scandal involving the organization most responsible, in the eyes of many, for the promotion of their god’s will.  Even worse, the issue at hand, charging the Pope, involves accusing someone who is supposed to have a direct line to God Himself with actively harming those who are arguably the least among us, those most in need of protection, when that same god said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).  It is simply difficult for many to reconcile that the person they believe speaks with the Voice of God can be the same person accused of the actions spelled out so clearly in article after article documenting the Pope’s callous and awful actions.  As such, this is a time when those who have worked to sharpen their critical thinking skills are most needed to pry apart the actions of God’s mouthpiece on Earth from the actions of the man.

But I would be remiss if I did not point out the obvious, and is the elephant in the room, that the reason the Church and the Pope feel so emboldened is that they believe they have some supernatural authority that makes them exempt from the laws of man.  There is just no getting around that.  Further, the reason that so many people who are not themselves in the administration of the Church have been willing to give the Church a pass on raping kids and covering up that rape is because they too think the Church has some supernatural privilege that excludes them from dealing with “petty” matters like human laws.  That makes the supernatural character of this issue a key component.  What is it that skeptics do?  It looks to me like examining claims about the supernatural is a big component of their activity.  Moreover, they often do so expressly because of ethical concerns resulting from supernatural claims.  Taking those things together, examination of supernatural claims because of concerns about the ethical implications of said claims, it looks to me that there is good reason for skeptics in their roles as skeptics to look at this issue.

Skepticism is compelling because we realize that bad arguments and blind appeals to authority are dangerous.  Not only is it acceptable for skeptics to criticize the Church’s heinous cover-up, it’s the right thing to do.  That’s one of the things that makes skeptical inquiry valuable.

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Who are the Accommodationists Accommodating?

Though it has been going on for a while, there is a tension in the skeptical community that seems to have captured a lot of interest lately over the question of whether or not science has anything to say about religious claims.  In as much as we can say there are sides, the divide is often described as the accommodationists vs. the purists.  I doubt either side is entirely comfortable with those titles, but those are the ones being used, so I will use them here as well.

To me, the question of whether or not science has anything to say about religious claims seems to be, in almost all cases, an obvious “yes.”  Are there some claims that are out of the reach of science and reason?  I don’t think so.  How about just science?  Well, sure, but, as it turns out, I think the overwhelming majority of religious claims just happen to eventually have some kinds of empirical implications as they involve the supernatural acting upon the physical world in some way.  Looking at the various types of claims science can address:  any story having to do with the origin of humanity is fair game; any story about the origin of the world in general is fair game; any story about the nature of the mind is fair game; any claim about historical figures or events is fair game; any claim about any physical process at all is fair game.

So what kinds of religious claims are left?  Mostly those that never touch the world.  For example, science cannot say anything about the various kinds of angels that might exist in a purely non-physical world that never touches or interacts with the physical.  The problem is that very few of the people described as purists worry about that kind of stuff.  So far as I can tell, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, nor any of the other “new atheists” are griping about those kinds of claims.  Rather, the issues over which they worry are things that affect the world.  And this, I think, begins to get to what I find so odd about this debate. 

The accommodationists seem to want to privilege religious claims as beyond the reach of science.  How do they do this?  Let’s look at a couple of specifics.  Recently, Massimo Pigliucci (whose blog that you should be reading has long been linked in the blogroll in the sidebar) addressed this issue on his blog and podcast, both entitled “Rationally Speaking.”  In the podcast Pigliucci is concerned that purists are wrong when they suggest that "science is sufficient to debunk or disprove or reject religious claims." He allows that science can reject specific empirical claims that come out of religion, but he does not think that this is the issue at hand. To demonstrate the insufficiency of science to address religious claims he leans on the idea of “Last Thursdayism.”  Last Thursdayism is the hypothetical belief that the entire world was created last Thursday to look as if it were the result of wholly natural processes identical to the ones science posits now.   He also says he’s heard Creationists actually making this claim. I’d like to see that referenced as I personally know lots of Creationists, and none of them would say anything of the sort. Further, I have never heard any of the prominent Creationists say anything like this. Indeed, it seems to be explicitly contrary to any of the well-discussed notions of Creationism, all of which require that the world was created as laid out in some religious text. Now, they might well concede that their god could do such a thing, but they don’t actually think that such is the way it was done.  In fact, it is the assertion of all the prominent Creationist that the world looks exactly as one would expect if God created it.  This, of course, is absolutely something science can address.

But let’s allow that someone does believe such a thing as Last Thursdayism. That puts them in the strange position believing something that is indistinguishable from its not being true. Pigliucci correctly points out that such a position is unfalsifiable, but he then claims that this moves such a question beyond the realm of any kind of scientific reasoning.  I do not think this is right.  While Last Thursdayism may not technically be falsifiable, the notion of parsimony is still active in scientific reasoning. That gives one good scientific reason to reject the unnecessarily complicated hypothesis of Last Thursdayism, even if it is, technically, unfalsifiable.  An analogy would be useful here.  Let us imagine that some scientist claims that, contrary to the understanding of carbon we have now, something else is happening.  In fact, there is some other element that is completely undetectable by any instrument, and, moreover, it has the uncanny property of doing everything carbon is thought to do.  The scientists further asserts that, as it happens, carbon has some set of properties that allow it to look like it has the properties of this newly posited element, but it really has none of the properties we now think it to have.  Further, this new element is always connected to carbon in some way such that it is always present when carbon is but never when carbon is not.  The result of all this is that it is that everything looks exactly as it does now, but it is actually the case that there is some undetectable element doing everything carbon is thought to do while carbon does something completely different.

The above description is completely unfalsifiable, and it is completely consistent with all possible observations.  That being the case, would it be appropriate for other scientists to rule out such a claim?  I imagine that most of you are thinking to yourself, “Of course.”  But this is exactly the same kind of claim as Last Thursdayism.  It is a difference that makes no difference, is completely superfluous, and for which there is no good reason to believe it at all.  In such a case, there is nothing that prohibits science from tossing this claim.  Parsimony is as much a part of science as anything else, and in this case it dictates that the Non-Carbon theory be discarded along with Last Thursayism.

Let us now turn to a recent post by Steven Novella (who writes for several of the blogs linked in the blogroll).  Here Novella says that religious claims cannot be examined as they fall outside the bounds of methodological naturalism, the process assumed for scientific activity.  He writes,

Any belief which is structured in such a way that it is positioned outside the realm of methodological naturalism by definition cannot be examined by the methods of science. In short, this usually means that the beliefs cannot be empirically tested in any conceivable way. One can therefore not have scientific knowledge of such claims, and science can only be agnostic toward them. Any belief in untestable claims is therefore by definition faith.

Now, he does say that some religious claims are, in fact, testable.  He further says, “They intrude upon science on a regular basis, and whenever they step into the arena of science, they are absolutely fair game.”  It just turns out that, according to Novella, very few of the claims of religion are of this type.

Here is where I am deeply puzzled.  What are these claims that are being made that never touch the physical world, that are, in principle, untestable?  As I said above, I can imagine some class of claims that fall into this category, but they make up almost none of the actual claims made by believers of various stripes.  Almost all claims of genuine interest to believers have to do with things that touch the world science examines.  And this gets to the title of this post.  Who are these people being accommodated?  They are not the overwhelming majority of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or even Buddhists.  The overwhelming majority of the claims made by these religions, and certainly the ones that are of interest to the overwhelming majority of adherents, end up being testable in some way.  In fact, the only group that seems to genuinely make the kinds of claims that really make no difference are deists.  While it is certainly not the case that there are no deists in the world, it certainly is the case that there are very few, and none of the purists seem to care at all about them.  Rather, the purists are concerned about the majority of religious believers, those who believe that the supernatural interacts in detectable ways with the natural world.  But, as both Pigliucci and Novella explicitly say, those kinds of claims are fair game for science to examine.  In which case it appears that everyone is on the same side.  Except, of course, they aren’t, because the accommodationists keep chastising the purists by telling them that religious claims are out of bounds.

So what are the accommodationists really doing?  In the end, it is hard for me to think that accommodationism is not merely a political move.  Its advocates all concede that science can address religious claims that have a discernable effect, but those are the only kinds of claims about which the purists cared anyway.  Questions about the ranks of wholly non-material angels were simply never a concern.  That makes it look like the accommodationists are simply trying to avoid offending theists as a way of keeping their assistance in terms of fighting other issues they believe to be more problematic, like science education.  And this might be a very practical concern.  I am not sure about that, but it might be, and that too is an empirical claim that we could test.  However, if that is the case, they should be explicit about it and not couch their arguments for accommodation in arguments about the limits of scientific reasoning.  The most such arguments can do is “protect” articles of faith that cannot possibly affect the world in any way.  But, of course, those beliefs were never under any serious attack, so that kind of move is a dead end.


I want to say here at the end that it seems some people have misunderstood some of the things I’ve said on here before even though I tried to be clear.  I’m not trying to convince everyone that they should be attacking theists.  I’m not making a case for atheism at all.  All I’m doing is addressing this issue of various people saying that religious claims are somehow off limits for discussion.  That seems both perplexing and worrying.  I don’t think anything should be off limits.  That’s my whole point.  It is not that atheists rule and theists drool.  If that’s what you got out of my posts, you have seriously misread me.

Oh, and before someone feels the need to address the grammar of the title, I am well aware that it should be ‘whom’.  However, colloquially, that sounds odd, and I’m not the kind of pedantic bastard who feels the need to correct colloquial phrasing.

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Silly Utilitarians, You Can’t Derive an "Ought" from an "Is"

Jim’s last post on Sam Harris addresses a particular example of a more general problem that I see repeating in the skeptical/scientific community.  There seems to be a trend among skeptics to endorse very naive version of utilitarianism as though it is not merely a theory about moral value but an objective principle similar to empirical theories.  This trend is worrisome because many of the people who are endorsing it do not seem to be aware that they are doing this, or worse, they don’t get why this is a problem.    For this reason, I’m going to to take a few minutes to explain why this is a problem, so none of our skeptical readers will make a similar mistake.

The basic assumption of every utilitarian ethical theory is that happiness (the definition varies, of course) is intrinsically valuable.   Insofar as the definition of “intrinsic value” is understood in contrast to “instrumental value,” this observation is not controversial.  We do not seek happiness as a means to some other end, we seek it as an end in itself.  The value of happiness is also universal in the sense that nearly every person seems to value it.  But there is a trick in moving from this accurate description of the intrinsic and universal value of  happiness to the objective value of happiness that is necessary in order to make utilitarianism into an empirical moral principle.

Here’s the trick:  It’s not really happiness qua happiness* that is intrinsically and universally valuable.  It’s my happiness that I pursue as an end in itself, and it’s your happiness that you pursue as an end in itself.   Utilitarians want to take the empirical fact that we each value our own happiness and derive a prescriptive imperative from it- “we ought to promote happiness universally.”  Unfortunately, it just does not follow that simply because I value my own happiness I ought to promote the happiness of others.  In order to make that step, the utilitarian must argue that I value happiness itself -not particular manifestations of it- so that my failure to promote universal happiness constitutes a mistake in my moral reasoning.  And this argument fails because it is based upon a ludicrous premise:  The overwhelming evidence is that we value human happiness selectively and with huge variation of intensity.  I may strongly value the happiness of those I love, somewhat value the happiness of those I know, and slightly prefer the happiness of innocent strangers, but this does not mean that I value happiness independently of who manifests it.  If I really valued happiness universally, I would easily relinquish the money I spend on personal comforts and comforts for people I loved because that money could make so much more of a difference in the happiness of people I do not know who are starving and suffering somewhere else.

Inevitably, when I point out to a naive utilitarian that his theory does not seem to accurately describe his own moral values, let alone those of others, he will respond by saying something along the lines of, “Yes, but if I were a better person it would.” No doubt, utilitarianism is appealing as a moral theory because it discourages selfishness, clannishness, racism, and all other manner of discriminatory practices.  But unfortunately, this is irrelevant to its meta-ethical foundation.  If utilitarianism were a truly empirical moral principle, then we wouldn’t have to explain away discrepancies between what we actually value and what we ought to value.  Since those discrepancies exist, utilitarianism either hasn’t described the world accurately, or it is a moral postulation no more grounded in empirical science than any other theory of ethics. (Or, both.  I think it’s both.)  Either way, the utilitarians have failed to bridge the gap between actual moral sentiments (“is”s) and prescriptions about the way we ought to feel/act (“ought”s).

Of course, there is another method of bridging the is/ought that many utilitarians favor as well.  It has the advantage of meaningfully distinguishing between empirical descriptions and practical imperatives but with one rather unfortunate caveat:  It takes out morality altogether.  The move is to say that prescriptive language only refers to prudential advice, not moral imperatives.  In other words, the utilitarian would say “you ought to promote universal happiness because that will be likely to promote something you do value (a peaceful world, being seen as a good person, cooperation with others, personal fulfillment, etc.).” This move is problematic for two reasons:  First, the premise that acting as a utilitarian is likely to promote personal value-satisfaction will frequently be false (i.e., There are lots of times in which selfishness, or even hurting others, is the best strategy for promoting personal values), and second, and more importantly, it entirely misses the point.  As soon as we move from moral oughts to prudential oughts, utilitarianism goes from being an ostensibly defensible theory of moral foundations to a delusional program of self-help.  There is no reason to take advice from utilitarians unless it is moral advice, so the move from morality to prudence is just silly.

All of that being said, I don’t want to give the impression that I have some sort of a personal vendetta against utilitarianism.  I don’t think it’s absurd to postulate that happiness qua happiness is intrinsically valuable.  It’s a perfectly defensible axiom, but it is not derived from empirical observation.  This puts utilitarianism in exactly the same meta-ethical position as every other theory of ethics.  You can’t bridge the is/ought gap, and the scientists and skeptics who don’t get this need a philosophy lesson.

*In the interest of clarity, the phrase “x qua x” is used to refer to any thing in the capacity or character of itself.  So, “happiness qua happiness” means “happiness as itself” in contrast to “happiness for some particular person” or “happiness as it as seen by some particular person.”

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Sam Harris, Science, and Morality – Part 2

Yesterday I said quite a bit about Harris’ recent TED talk.  That video can be seen in the post below this one or on this page, where you’ll also get some extra commentary from Harris.  I’ll say again, so as to avoid misunderstanding, that I like Sam Harris.  In the recent Nightline debate that I wrote about a few days ago, Harris commanded the floor, easily handling Chopra and Houston, and I think he did a much better job than Shermer presenting their shared position.  In short, I have a lot of respect for the guy, and I agree with him on much.  I just think he missed the boat, here.  These posts, then, should be seen as a friendly corrective of the academic sort and not some kind of personal attack.

Harris latches onto something in his talk when he says that the suggestion that wild differences in preferences indicating genuine moral differences seem to intuitively strike us as odd.  His example here is the distinction between the Dali Lama and Ted Bundy.  He thinks it just cannot be right to say that there is no genuine, objective difference in the morality of the actions of these two people.  After all, one works to see the happiness of everyone increased, and one kidnapped, raped, and murdered young women, sometimes even engaging in necrophilia with their corpses.  Surely, says Harris, there must be something that makes one action is right while the other action is wrong, and I think most people feel the intuitive tug of such a claim.

Harris is right that it seems counter-intuitive to think that the distinction between the Dali Lama and Ted Bundy is merely a matter of preference, of taste, in the same way that chocolate and vanilla are matters of taste.  This almost certainly has to do with the fact that these tastes are shared by most everyone.  The near universality of the feeling that Ted Bundy was evil provides intuitive force that he was, in fact, evil.  But the question someone making the kinds of claims that Harris makes is this:  are shared tastes enough to make them objective in the way that Harris claims?  I don’t see how that could be the case, no matter how wrong something seems.  Looking back at the chocolate vs. vanilla distinction, I want to say that, when pressed, it seems odd to me that people really do like chocolate as much as they do. I just don’t get that; chocolate really just isn’t that good.  Why the hell do people like it so much?  It is inexplicable to me.  Yet, I have come to accept that some people, lots of them, in fact, really do just love chocolate.  They genuinely do prefer that flavor a great deal, no matter how weird that seems to me.  And therein lies the point, that the weirdness of something is not enough to give it objective status.  The fact that people’s obsession with chocolate seems to me wholly misplaced, and, indeed, the obsession with sweets in general is kinda strange, does not mean that people should not prefer that stuff. 

Now, of course, there is a difference between these two sets of tastes, but that difference appears to lie in the effects of such. Loving chocolate over vanilla doesn’t lead one to rape and murder people, so we are less inclined to worry about it. But that does not necessarily mean that there is anything beyond tastes, here, either.  Maybe there is, but no one is justified in claiming that this is some brute fact about the world while making no attempt at justifying it beyond the mere claim that it is so.  And that looks like the crux of Harris’ argument:  most people feel this way, science can explain why that is, therefore people should feel that way and should act in accordance with those feelings.  But, again, just because a lot of people prefer something does not give that preference the status of some objective ought. 

Harris’ analogy that he gives in his talk about the physicist just completely fails in a similar respect.  He says there are objective facts about what makes someone a better physicist, and, in the same way, there are objective facts about what makes someone a more moral person.  The idea of what makes the best physicist relies upon values that are already shared, namely those that give rise to science. But the question between valuing helping people or satisfying one’s desires is one that is prior to what is the case after we agree upon some set of values.  Indeed, it is the question of what is valuable itself.  I know that Harris earlier said that all morality is focused on human well-being, but here he is missing that this is simply not accepted by his opponents.  As I pointed out in my last post, lots and lots of people do not share this position, and, in fact, it is explicitly rejected by anyone who claims to get their morality from a divine source or even from pure reason.  Hence, he has framed this question of tastes in such a way that it appears to come after the question of what makes something moral, but this is a radical misrepresentation. When people talk about this issue of tastes, they are talking about the very question that Harris claims is already decided. For that reason, his concern about what kinds of actions really furthers human well-being misses the whole point.  Of course, if one has already decided that what one should do is further happiness, then it follows that we should not harm people.  But that begs the question as it is simply not clear that the values of the majority grant those values objective status.  The same goes for his point about the Taliban. The issue is that the Taliban values something wildly different than Harris, and it clearly isn’t human well-being, or at least not well-being in the sense that Harris means.  As such, his insistence that the member of the Taliban should be working to engender happiness and prevent suffering in the sense that he means is lost on them.  They simply do not share Harris’ values.

Ironically, the issue above undermines the argument I address yesterday that Harris brings up at the beginning of his talk, that all morality is really concerned with human happiness.  This simply is not true.  As I pointed out yesterday, in a deontological system, a system in which what makes an action moral is that it conforms to a moral law, it is often the case that human happiness gets in the way of determining the moral worth of some action.  You can see my earlier post for that discussion.  The point here is that by highlighting the concerns of member of the Taliban in an effort to show that we can objectively say those people are morally wrong, Harris undercuts his earlier assertion that all morality is concerned with furthering human well-being.  As he so clearly points out, it is difficult to square the actions of the Taliban with any such belief.  But, of course, the member of that group would never attempt to do so.  Their morality is not determined by happiness.  Rather, it is determined by doing what Allah says.  That is what they value, and this difference in values along with the inability to objectively justify either set of values is exactly why Harris’ endeavor just cannot get off the ground.

Another issue I want to quickly address is this thing about relativism that Harris says: “Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism.”  He says this as a way to pooh-pooh the position of those who disagree with him, but this clearly just is not the case.  Relativism is a recognition that what is seen as morality is dynamic and fluid with no real core onto which one can hold. Anything capable of such radical alteration looks to be dependent upon something else, and, in terms of morality, that something else appears to be the culture in which particular values are upheld. That is, morals are relative to the time and place in which they appear. That’s it. That’s all moral relativism is, and it is empirically true.  It is just the case that what is seen as moral is relative to some spatio-temporal location.  Facts are facts, and that is as much a fact as anything else Harris believes.  I don’t want to actually accuse Harris of intellectual dishonesty here, but it is difficult to believe that he is unaware of this.  At any rate, what is seen as morality is relative, and suggesting that the idea of moral relativism is really some misguided attempt to make up for cultural wrongdoings is just to misunderstand the concept.  Now, does this cause problems for some moral enterprise that wants an objective morality?  Yep, but thems the breaks.  You cannot dismiss the problem with an incorrect statement about the origin of the issue.  You have to face it head on, and Harris has not, at least as of yet, done that.

I get Harris’ frustration.  I really, really do.  It just seems bizarre that some people want to defend as moral actions that appear to help no one and harm many.  But, of course, I happen to share Harris’ values, so that’s not surprising.  What I don’t share is the belief that there mere fact that I like my way better makes my way objectively right.  I just do not see how one can create the chasm that exists between what Harris and I share and what we do not.

Liza should be tackling the idea that science can bridge the is/ought gap, so I’ll leave that to her.

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