Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Chris Port Blog #250. Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

© Chris Port, May 2011

“There is no such thing as a fact. There are only stories. Choose different facts, and you get a different story...” ~ Marty Gull 

Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Hmm. I would like to throw Lyotard’s ‘performativity’ and Smolin’s ‘groupthink’ into Harris’ mix. (See also Blog #62. Is education a commodity?) There is (unfortunately) no inevitability of scientific paradigms converging on Harris' 'factspace' of empathy and compassion. By way of counter-factual example, see Francis Fukuyama’s optimistically myopic ‘End of History’!

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” (The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama, 1992)

I agree with Harris’ advocacy of rational moral expertise (which seems reminiscent of Plato’s philosopher kings transformed into political scientists). However, politics has always been about the pursuit of power rather than truth, and science is just pissing in the wind when it goes against expediency. That is why I am so wary of giving the language of science any moral authority.

In The Postmodern Condition (1974), the postmodernist philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard predicted the growth of information technology and the breakdown of the nation state to be replaced by multi-national corporations and scientific discourse. According to Lyotard, science cannot legitimize its own activity. It must turn to narrative (political and philosophical).

However, the general decline in metanarratives after the Second World War led science to try and legitimize itself through performativity. What kind of research will generate more research of the same kind? Moral claims on the objective search for truth are soon compromised in the political wheeler-dealing required to secure funding and careers. In The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next (2006), the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin is deeply critical of politics in science and the highly selective decision-processes created by ‘group think’.

Revising Popper with Wittgenstein, anomalous exceptions to a mostly accurate theory do not totally invalidate said theory. They merely indicate the inaccuracy of all generalizations and the advisability of applying a more context-specific theory.

For example, Harris’s chess analogy of the law of queen conservation permits occasions when queen-sacrifice is more advantageous. So it is not a physical ‘law’, simply a general guideline. Science does not deal in general guidelines. It deals in non-negotiable physical processes.

The language of science is not suited to the negotiations of meaning. The language of art is. I think that may even be the reason for art’s evolution. Morality may have discernible patterns, and data analysis of those patterns may yield valuable insights, but moral decisions are not suited to mathematical formulas.

If ‘values reduce to facts’ then why stop there? Science is reductionism, an inexorable process of reduction to information theory. Information theory, by the reduction of language to 1s and 0s, has nothing to say. It is data for analysis, digital not analogous. What facts we reconstitute from that data are as analogous to values as freeze-dried re-hydrated soup is to ‘the real thing’.

To reduce the subjectivity of an experience to a mathematical model unavoidably reduces not only the quality of the experience but also the quality of the facts and their values. Moral values are not equivalent to numeric values, means-testing and points-systems. Claiming that facts are equivalent to values is slippery maths. Early Nazi euthanasia experiments on the mentally ill used rational, utilitarian economic arguments for their moral justification.

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History lesson for neo-positivists. Teachers talking maths in 1930s Italy... (From Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni, Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997).

“Third grade. Listen to this work. Really. It’s quite shocking. The problem. Supporting a lunatic costs the state four marks a day. Supporting a cripple costs four and a half marks. An epileptic, three and a half marks. Figuring the average at four marks per day, and considering there are three hundred thousand, how much would the state save if these individuals were simply eliminated?”

“Completely unbelievable!”

“That is exactly how I reacted. Completely unbelievable. I can’t believe an elementary school child is expected to solve something like this. It’s a difficult calculation. The proportions, the percentages. They’d need some algebra to solve these equations, right? That would be high school material for us.”

“No, no. It’s just multiplication. What did you say it was? Three hundred thousand cripples?”


“Three hundred thousand times four. We’d be saving around one million two hundred thousand marks a day if we killed them all. It’s easy.”

“Exactly. But you’re an adult. In Germany, seven year-olds are given these problems to work out. A most amazing race indeed...”

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

All Harris has ‘factually’ claimed is that values are a demonstrable result of biological complexity and sentient consciousness. He has not, however, defined any value system, any moral formula for us to prove that one value is correct while another value is incorrect. He’s just played a very clever language game blurring the linguistic uses of ‘value’ and ‘fact’ until they appear to be little more than synonyms. He has also neatly sidestepped Gödel's incompleteness theorem which proves that no system can prove the consistency of the system itself.

However, to sidestep is not to solve, it is simply to avoid with nimble footwork. There may be a ‘continuum’ of facts whereby we know what it’s like to live in a failed state, but in the ‘real world’ of chaotic interacting incompletely defined systems, science has not (and, I would claim, cannot) define or prove any complete or successful system. Evolution and progress are not synonyms for the same thing. Evolution is a reasonably consistent theory that explains bio-diversity. Progress is a rationally inconsistent attempt to map physical bio-diversity to metaphysical values. Values have no factual physical existence.

Ultimately (as I have said before) they are only as ‘true’ as 2+2=4. Values may be reduced to information theory but, like laughter and consciousness, I quote from my dissertation Humour in the Holocaust:


I would question whether any moral decision made without feeling is actually a moral decision at all. If we wish to retain any feeling in our moral decisions, I do not think that scientific arguments should be given priority. An advisory capacity, yes, but the final decision should be holistic. If we defer morality to science we are attempting to sidestep our consciences. Some judgments are better than others, and some decision-takers are better qualified than others. History teaches us more useful morality lessons than science after that.

Is history a science or an art? It’s a selection of narratives...


  1. Shifting Discourses in Higher Education

    "Lyotard’s concept of ‘performativity’ has proven to be particularly useful (if not prophetic) in understanding the major shifts in the institutional discourses of universities in recent times. The New Zealand government’s Tertiary Education Strategy (TES) and Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) are interesting examples of this. The present paper shall outline some of the main elements of these new political devices, especially their use of a ‘commodity’ theory of knowledge. Attention will be focused particularly on the PBRF. It will be shown that the PBRF: Is being used to make claims about research productivity that do not meet the normative standards of research methodology; in effect breaches the Education Act’s requirements of government to respect academic freedom; is being misused by university managers for disciplinary purposes; and promotes the perverse perception that the purpose of research is to make money (commodifying research and researchers), rather than institutional income being deployed to produce research for its own value. Finally, in an ironic form of reflexivity, the present paper, and any subsequent ‘research output’, may or may not be entered into a PBRF assessment for the purpose of augmenting a university’s income."

    See Blog #62. Is education a commodity? (I put this question to Ed Miliband, Labour Leader of HM Loyal Opposition, in the National Union of Students Facebook Debate on tuition fees on 9 December 2010)

    "This performance management culture has been disastrously misappropriated from the incompatible mindset of business. Business deals in profit. Education deals in people. Business abandons unprofitable clients. Education cages them and throws taxpayers’ money at them, via meaningless tick boxes, to no avail. Hence my question of whether education is a commodity (which you avoided answering with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ since either answer opens up a can of worms). Until we decide what the purposes of education actually are, then questions of how it should be funded (and who should fund it) are poorly framed."

  2. On postmodernism and the breakdown of metanarratives...

    Extract from #110 Manifesto For Drama Education in the Twenty-First Century

    Our arbitrary correlation with the Postmodernist timeline starts with the end of the Second World War. This bookmark in the metanarrative of modernism showed the world that the Enlightenment values of science and rationality had led ultimately to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the skies over Hiroshima and the rubble of Europe. Intellects, subordinated to the grand narratives of Nazism, Stalinism, and the Democracies, had created mechanized states of inhuman destructive power. The betrayal of rational Eurocentric world-views, started by the slaughter of some ten million people in the First World War, found its nadir in the extermination of more than fifty million people in the Second World War. It is hardly surprising that, in the wake of such blood-letting, at Darwin’s tail-end to religious faith and the headstart of consumerism in the West, progressivism turned from these metanarratives to what Brian Appleyard has termed the ‘survival of the atomised self’ (Appleyard 1999:39).

  3. When will Sam Harris attack the Capitalist Fundamentalists?

    Who Says Science has Nothing to Say About Morality?

    Good to hear Sam Harris applying a Wittgensteinian approach to language games…

    “Now moral skeptics of this kind invariably cite David Hume’s famous distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. The notion is you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, which is to say that science can only give us a descriptive account of the way the world is, and there’s no way to move from that account to an account of how the world ought to be. Now I happen to think this is a trick of language. This notion of ‘ought’ falls very much into Wittgenstein’s notion of philosophy as a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language, and people are mightily bewitched by words like ‘ought’ and ‘should’ and ‘moral duty’.”

    Harris easily refutes both religious fundamentalists and dogmatic relativists with a few well-chosen examples. However, there are more problematic opponents whom he omits to attack (i.e. capitalist fundamentalists).

    As usual, I mostly endorse Harris’s idealism.

    “In closing I just want to suggest to you that, just as we don’t have Christian physics, though the Christians invented physics, and we don’t have Muslim algebra, though the Muslims invented algebra, we at some point will not have Christian and Muslim morality. The truth has to float free of these provincial ideas. What remains for us to discover are all the facts that relate to genuine questions of human well-being, and the goal clearly is to build a global civilization based on shared values. Now it seems to me the only tool we need to do that is honest and open inquiry, and if faith is ever right about anything in this space, it’s just right by accident.”

    However, as a pragmatic relativist, I observe that science in the ‘real’ world is now totally subordinated to political and financial agendas rather than ‘honest and open inquiry’.

    See Can Science Answer Moral Questions? at

    (in response to Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions at

    Religious fundamentalists and dogmatic relativists are easy targets. But what about omnipotent capitalist fundamentalists? They are as fanatically obsessed with the God of profit as the morally insane Taliban are with throwing battery acid into the faces of little girls (for the crime of learning to read). Capitalist fundamentalists kill millions more people than the Taliban (albeit through proxies). I wish Sam Harris would focus his next erudite attack on these enemies of science and morality.

  4. "Hawking is a brilliant man, but he's not an expert in what's going on in philosophy, evidently. Over the past thirty years the philosophy of physics has become seamlessly integrated with the foundations of physics work done by actual physicists, so the situation is actually the exact opposite of what he describes. I think he just doesn't know what he's talking about. I mean there's no reason why he should. Why should he spend a lot of time reading the philosophy of physics? I'm sure it's very difficult for him to do. But I think he's just . . . uninformed."

    (Tim Maudlin, 'What Happened Before the Big Bang? The New Philosophy of Cosmology'

  5. 'False positives: fraud and misconduct are threatening scientific research'
    Alok Jha, science correspondent,, Thursday 13 September 2012

  6. 'Philosophy v science: which can answer the big questions of life?'
    Julian Baggini and Lawrence Krauss, The Observer, Sunday 9 September 2012


    Sam Harris (world famous neuroscientist philosopher) is offering his critics a chance to put up or shut up. He's offered a cash prize of $20,000 (about £12,800) to anyone who can convincingly refute his central argument for a scientific morality.

    Assuming no-one can refute him, there's a consolation prize of $2,000 (about £1,280) for the most interesting response.

    See FAQs in link for further details. Closing date for entries is 9 February 2014, so you've got time to buy his book and boost his royalties.


    Hmmm… Traditionally, science has been regarded as descriptive and morality as prescriptive. But science is also predictive. So, in Sam’s moral landscape, do good* predictions = good** prescriptions?

    * Falsifiable
    ** Beneficial

    Possibly. But if they’re truly equivalent, does it work vice versa? This leads out onto some very thin ice…

    The real question is always “Cui bono” (to whose benefit?). So I suspect that Sam’s thesis could only be refuted by reference to de facto cynicism rather than de jure principle (i.e. selectivity and performativity)


    I don’t actually want to refute Sam’s thesis (fortunately for me). I just want to qualify it (modesty is my only flaw). But, in order to qualify it, I’ll have to fail to refute it in a way that grabs his interest. So, all I’m really looking for is a fascinating aesthetic conundrum at the heart of his argument…

    See also:

    Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

    First Draft PhD Proposal

    Woolwich Threads

    A Crash Course in Aesthetics

    Metamodernist Case Notes on a Think Tank Thread: Why Us and Why Now?

    Notes on Metamodernism: The Pit and the Pendulum...

    The Name of the Ghost

    Teachers Talking Rot (1 of 2)

    Teachers Talking Rot (2 of 2)

    See also: "Perhaps description is the key?"

    Marty Solves One of the Problems of the Universe

  8. WG: If morality evolved for the purpose of fostering community, can we deduce anything about what is moral/immoral without committing the naturalistic fallacy? If so, what?

    Naturalistic fallacy

    CP: Assuming evolution (and discounting intelligent design) we would be committing a teleological fallacy if we claimed that morality evolved for any purpose.

    See Teleological Argument

    It would be less erroneous if we simply claimed that community evolved as a successful survival strategy. From this we can deduce that morality evolved from a natural hierarchical pecking order into etiquette.

    See Etiquette

    The problem of the 'Naturalistic Fallacy' arises because of a manmade distinction between natural and manmade.

    This distinction seems to be an inverted form of the anthropomorphic/pathetic fallacy.

    See Pathetic Fallacy

    Man (i.e. homo sapiens) evolved IN the natural world. However, our intelligence evolved as another successful survival strategy. Eventually, this sapient differential resulted in misrecognition. We began to see ourselves as SEPARATE from the natural world.

    However, this separation is a fallacy. In (physical) reality, sentience is an emergent phenomenon. The artificial is still part of the natural world.

    From our initial premises, we can deduce that morality (i.e. evolved etiquette) can only exist in higher level consciousness. Therefore, we can deduce that morality is a complex emergent property.

    After that, we can only deduce that we are playing Wittgensteinian language games.

    See Language-game (philosophy)

    In 'The Moral Landscape', Sam Harris proposes we should discard cultural relativism and quantify these language games in terms of 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. It's a logical deduction and a valid premise.

    See 'The Moral Landscape'

    Whether his arguments are sound is still up for grabs though.


    CP: If morality is ‘the well-being of conscious creatures’, then consciousness must precede well-being.

    This is a one-way logic gate. We can talk of consciousness without well-being, but it makes no sense to talk of well-being without consciousness.

    Ergo, existence must precede essence (sans Sartrean Free Will).

    Ergo, survival must precede morality.

    But survival of what? Individuals, communities, genes, or memes?

    These qualities are entangled and interdependent. But which is most important?

    Ironically, we cannot be equitable from first principle here. Unfortunately, we do not live in a deathless paradise. Therefore, in the physical universe, we can only talk of survival and morality in terms of priorities (e.g. dilemmas or conflicts of interest).

    The scientific method can quantify well-being. But can it qualify existential priorities? If not, then a scientific morality without aesthetic qualification has no system of prioritization.

    Ergo, does ‘scientific morality’ encounter similar inconsistencies to those identified in Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems?

    Raatikainen, Panu, "Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)