Monday, September 2, 2013

Dear Sam Harris,

(no, I'm not going to buy your book).

I don't understand why the distinctions must be articulated again, but let us not be reluctant to do so.

But first, The Challenge:
Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must refute the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.)
And, like a good sport, there is the (very brief) actual central argument:
Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science.

The difficulties (which, I suppose, if I wanted to buy your book and read it, might or might not then be cleared up, but I deem the details to be "peripheral issues"), may be simultaneously summarized by replying that
There already is a scientific understanding of morality: it is Catholic Moral Theology.
but to be somewhat more explicit
  1. there is no cause to accept your premises
  2. the challenge equivocates on "scientific"
  3. the challenge equivocates on "morality"
  4. the claims behind the challenge are circular

Let us proceed in order.

Premises ungrounded

You say "Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of Nature." Let us set aside the odd coincidence of the last hundred and fifteen years, that the best abstract model of observed physical reality vocally declines to constrain its systems in their behaviour.

Why should I agree with you on the nature, or the ordinariness of consciousness? As it happens, I do think you are wrong; will you not, please, attempt to convince me otherwise?

"Scientific" is equivocal

What, Mr. Harris, is accepted as "scientific"? Of course, the broadest view should be "that which is reliably known by experience". For instance, I know quite reliably that the bishops of the Church exhibit the visible end of a physical continuum of contact from the Apostles to this day (orders being confered by laying-on of hands etc.). It is, to my understanding, therefore a scientific fact; however, I don't know whether you would accept it as such. I particularly don't expect that you would accept (as I do) as similarly scientific the fact of Jesus' Life, Death, Resurrection and bodily appearing to those same Apostles.

However, if you will restrict "scientific" to mean "that which is reliably repeated in controlled laboratory conditions" (see "MRI at the beach") then you can't actually conclude "the existence of conscious minds" other than your own. Sleeping bodies, for instance, consistently fail to show signs of consciousness, while ELIZA has reliably fooled patients that it is conscious. There is no general reliability on this point. Presuming a conscious mind other than your own requires something of a leap of faith; but then why stop at one?

"Morality" is equivocal

Suppose, for now, that you have a consistent definition of "scientific" which admits the existence of multiple conscious minds and at worst remains silent on the Divinity (by Gödel's first Incompleteness theorem, it is unnecessary to suppose that one theory resolves all questions); in what, then, does morality consist? My best guide to your intention is that it has something to do with "the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe". Is it impossible that a mind suffering may nonetheless have perfect well-being? And what is suffering, anyway? Do you mean the fact of subjectivity? Do you mean the experience of physical discomfort? Do you mean the confusion of contemplating paradox? Do you, perhaps, mean the confusion that results from experiencing a pain whose sense or purpose is unknown?

I beg thee allow me to suppose (what I think charitable) that whatever you mean by "moral" is consistent with the proposition that minds ought to be given truth to know: then, as long as you are silent on the Divine while I believe I hold scientific evidence for Him, will you not concede it moral of me to teach, say, my own children to address and inquire of the Divine what His will is for them?

The proposition is circular, or vacuous

But to put a deeper problem somewhat more baldly: why not agitate for pain or confusion in other "conscious minds"? An empirical science may well indicate what will cause pain or confusion, and what will alleviate them, but that goes no distance at all towards suggesting that this is good. You may have settled on a definition to encompass your use of the word "good", but that doesn't mean you are talking about what we are talking about: you have instead redefined the question out of interest. Otherwise, even to state the proposition presupposes a real, accessible, goodness.

Even if, say, we consider a more modest and laboratory-accessible question, on the health of a mind, try the analogy of health in plants: why should plants be healthy? The answer, for a farmer or ecologist, is that plants should be healthy so that they may beget healthy offspring, and that whatever naturally eats them will be healthy in turn. Half of this is actively paradoxical, and only the other half of this reason is admissible for wanting healthy humans. For healthy minds, neither seems to make sense. But if a healthy mind is only desirable for itself, why should I act (as I hope I do) so that your mind be healthy? It certainly isn't a scientific fact that this improves my well-being, or alleviates my suffering: I might never have heard of you and been just as happy and sane for ignoring it! I might indeed be taking more pains on myself than otherwise necessary, but would have me do less?

Well, I have done my short-worded best. No, I don't want the money, thanks.



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