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Moral Landscape – definition of science

November 6, 2013

I’ve started reading Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’ in view of the Moral Landscape Challenge. It is claimed that the book is provocative and it certainly begins that way. There is plenty of food for thought in just the first two paragraphs of the introduction!

Harris opens by outlining the Albanian tradition of Kanun: a tradition that if a man commits a murder, his victim’s family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. He then uses this story as the example to pose his basic thesis – ‘can science adjudicate on this matter?’

In posing this dilemma he opens up the key questions which must be resolved for Harris to satisfactorily demonstrate that science can determine human values. He asks, ‘whose definition of ‘better’ or moral’ would we use? This is not just the problem of science, but it is the problem of any atheistic morality – whose definition should we use?

Harris also observes that current scientific investigations on morality are merely descriptive, not prescriptive. In the footnote Harris then defines what he means by ‘science’ and it is a very curious and somewhat idiosyncratic definition of science. His definition conflates “science” with “facts”. He defines ‘science’ as ‘our best effort to form a rational account of empirical reality’.

This is curious because by defining science so broadly, it includes many things that we would ordinarily not consider scientific – e.g. the study of history, which Harris acknowledges in the example of JFK’s assassination. There are other areas of human endeavour which then become ‘science’, for example the legal process in determining the guilt of the accused. Similarly philosophy, because it seeks the same goal could also be seen as scientific. Even the work of a poet or songwriter who seeks to form a rational account of reality through their poetry and pose could even be deemed ‘scientific’. Even more controversially, religious claims, could also be seen as ‘scientific’. Hence the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ could be understood as a ‘scientific fact’ – for it would be a ‘profoundly unscientific frame of mind to deny that it occurred’. Yet I’m not sure this is a conclusion that Harris would be ready to accept, but it seems the logical consequence of this broad definition.

Similarly Christian philosophy would also fall under the auspices of ‘science’ as this seeks to answer deep philosophical questions such as ‘why is there something rather than nothing’, and establish a coherent account of rationality and knowledge itself. Again, I’m not sure Harris would subscribe to this view, but it seems an outcome of his definition.

It seems that Harris has expanded the definition of ‘science’ to embrace all epistemology – science becomes epistemology. How significant will this definition be as Harris develops his thesis? We will keep reading and see.

We’re only 2 paragraphs and a couple of footnotes in and it’s already provocative!

  1. Interesting stuff, Rob.
    However, it looks like you might be glossing over a key component of Harris’ definition, which is the reference to “empirical reality”.
    The assassination of JFK is empirical reality. There is concrete evidence that the event occurred.
    The crucifixion of Jesus isn’t really empirical reality, because there isn’t really undisputed evidence that the event occurred. (Having said that, the claim that the crucifixion did occur isn’t remarkable, because it is a documented form of torture and execution by Romans in biblical times. ie., The claim for the event makes no difference in terms of understanding reality.)
    The resurrection of Jesus certainly is not empirical reality and about a billion miles away from ‘scientific fact’. Not only is there no real evidence that the event occurred, there are known scientific facts that indicate its implausibility. (And our knowledge of psychology and sociology provide more prosaic reasons to account for the perpetuation of a 2000-year-old myth.)
    As to the question of ‘why is there something rather than nothing’, this is also something that can be addressed empirically, and as you know, Lawrence Krauss, building on the work of other physicists, has already made an excellent summary of this question using science. (Furthermore, he suggests the ‘why’ is actually the wrong question-word to address the issue, and instead prefers ‘how’, and with good reason.) If you want to examine and ponder on ‘why is there something rather than nothing’ without relying on empirical methods and data, then this doesn’t fall within science.
    Semantic arguments can sometimes be interesting, but certainly Sam Harris – even if he were to concede that his definition of science is broad – wouldn’t agree with your re-interpretation.

    • Ryan Allan permalink

      I agree entirely; this is rather poor logic, I have to say.

    • Frank permalink

      Why do you conclude that the assassination of JFK is empirical reality? How do you know?

      • “Why do you conclude that the assassination of JFK is empirical reality? How do you know?”
        Because it was one of the most significant historical events in the United States of the 20th century. Sure – there are conspiracy theories about every major historical event, but I reckon the assassination of a head of state in 1963 would be pretty tricky to make up and get wrong, given the number of witnesses.
        Oh – and there’s the Zapruder film. That’s some pretty damn compelling empirical evidence right there.

    • Thanks for your comments and I take your criticism regarding the definitions of philosophy with regards to how Harris has defined ’empirical reality’ – metaphysical questions like ‘why is there something rather than nothing’ are probably beyond that purview – although (to my defence) I was thinking that this philosophical question does attempt to explain why there is an empirical reality in the first place. (although I’m not quite sure that Krauss has answered the question as convincingly as you suggest)

      Yes, we’ve had the discussion about the resurrection many times – and I did mean my comment to be provocative. Yet, you overstate your case when you say that there is ‘no real evidence that the event occurred’. There is evidence. It is historical evidence, and I think it is far more persuasive than you care to admit. Your comment also highlights the problem with Harris’ definition of ‘science’ because I think it is an historical reality, but not a scientific fact.

      • “…There is evidence. It is historical evidence, and I think it is far more persuasive than you care to admit…”
        I suggest it is far less persuasive than you care to admit, Rob.
        If you were to take the claim of the resurrection and place it in any context other than the religious faith in which you are wholly vested, then even you would have to admit that it fails the most basic tests of reason and plausibility.

        I’ve used the rise of Mormonism as a comparative example before. Here we’ve had entire communities converted to a collection of bizarre beliefs that still persist today, despite modern-day knowledge and reason. (The ancient Christians at least had an excuse – they didn’t know any better!).

        Look at some facts about Mormonism:
        * Joseph Smith’s original claims of divine visions and the subsequent revelation of the Golden Plates were attested to by no less than 12 credible eyewitnesses.
        * Joseph Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, suddenly converted to Mormonism after being a practicing Methodist for the previous seven years.
        * Despite antisocial and bizarre beliefs and practices, including polygamy, Mormonism flourished against a disapproving social backdrop.
        * In the space of less than 200 years, the worldwide population of Mormons has grown from one person to over 14 million. That is far more explosive than the original rise of Christianity. In fact, the sociological phenomenon of Mormonism makes the rise of Christianity look (ironically) like biological evolution in comparison!

        All of this is historical evidence, in the same way that you call the consequences of the resurrection ‘historical evidence’. Arguably, this evidence is even more reliable, since the events are more recent and there are plenty of independent accounts of Mormon history available.
        These basic facts require explanation. Surely the most likely explanation is that the Book of Mormon must have indeed come from the actual divine Golden Plates provided to JS by the Angel Moroni, along with his magic x-ray specs to help with the translation…

      • I’m not sure that the comparisons are the same. But I’m intrigued, so, why aren’t you a Mormon?

      • “I’m not sure that the comparisons are the same…”
        The comparisons have a lot in common, primarily a core nonsense claim of a miraculous event, combined with a collection of circumstantial evidence related to ‘unlikely’ social changes and changes in peoples’ behaviour in the face of incredulity.
        How does the evidence for the divine origins of Mormonism have less veracity the claim of the resurrection?

        “…But I’m intrigued, so, why aren’t you a Mormon?”
        I guess sometimes a facetious point can get lost in a text-only medium, Rob.
        I’m not a Mormon because, to put in mildly, I don’t actually believe the Joseph Smith claim of the angel visions, golden plates, seer stones and magic glasses.
        It’s a made-up story, despite the fact that 14 million people believe it to be true.

        The paragraph I wrote in the earlier post was to mimic the logic you keep using when you claim that historical evidence demonstrates that resurrection actually happened.
        The material that you call ‘evidence’ that you say demonstrates that the resurrection is most likely true, and the logic leap from this ‘evidence’ to the conclusion, has the same strength (or, arguably weaker) than the ‘evidence’ and logic leap to the conclusion about the divine origins of Mormonism.

  2. On re-reading this Rob, I’ve just spotted another flaw for you to consider:
    “He asks, ‘whose definition of ‘better’ or moral’ would we use? This is not just the problem of science, but it is the problem of any atheistic morality – whose definition should we use?”
    In particular, you refer to the subjective nature of atheistic morality. Do you not acknowledge the subjective nature of Christian (or any other religion’s) morality?

    • On this, I’m not sure what you mean by the ‘subjective’ nature of Christian morality. I think a theistic worldview provides a rational way of ‘grounding’ morality. This is the key problem with any atheistic morality – and something Harris is attempting to overcome.

      • “On this, I’m not sure what you mean by the ‘subjective’ nature of Christian morality…”
        Well, unless there is a clear and unambiguous definition for Christians of what is and isn’t ‘moral’, then isn’t each question of morality subject to interpretation?
        If all Christians reached on consensus on what was moral and what wasn’t, then you could make a case that Christian morality was indeed objective. Without this, it is quite obviously subjective.

        “…I think that a theistic worldview provides a rational way of ‘grounding’ morality…”
        That’s a matter of opinion, of course. There are plenty of others who see little in the way of rational thinking in 21st century educated adults relying on the thoughts of ancient desert dwellers for their moral grounding.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Moral Landscape – the central thesis | Atheist Forum
  2. Moral Landscape – the problem of religion | Atheist Forum

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