Friday, 29 October 2010

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is such a tricky one that it requires persistent vigilance.

Scientific American for November carries the story based on Marc Hauser's problems, the nature of which hasn't been made clear yet. Some suspect fraud, but the more generous view is confirmation bias.

"Two factors make combating confirmation bias an uphill battle. For one, data show that eminent scientists tend to be more arrogant and confident than other scientists. As a consequence,they may be especially vulnerable to confirmation bias and to wrong-headed conclusions, unless they are perpetually vigilant. Second, the mounting pressure on scholars to conduct single-hypothesis-driven research programs supported by huge federal grants is a recipe for trouble. Many scientists are highly motivated to disregard or selectively reinterpret negative results that could doom their careers. Yet when members of the scientific community see themselves as invulnerable to error, they impede progress and damage the reputation of science in the public eye."

"The very edifice of science hinges on the willingness of investigators to entertain the possibility that they might be wrong."

"The best antidote to fooling ourselves is adhering closely to scientific methods. Indeed, history teaches us that science is not
a monolithic truth-gathering method but rather a motley assortment of tools designed to safeguard us against bias."

"As astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife and co-author Ann Druyan noted, science is like a little voice in our heads that says, “You might be mistaken. You've been wrong before.” Good scientists are not immune from confirmation bias. They are aware of it and avail themselves of procedural safeguards against its pernicious effects." [my emphasis]

At least it's reassuring that scientists are keeping an eye on each other, given the difficulty of keeping an eye on oneself. It's about the best we can expect. And given this is the case, it illustrates the paucity of any 'other way of knowing'.

More on Marc Hauser here.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

What Do New Atheists Actually Believe?

Discovery Institute has Michael Egnor asking this question...

And he has some specific questions...

1) Why is there anything?
2) What caused the Universe?
3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something? 
7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
8) Why is there evil?

Well, here are my answers...

1) Why is there anything?

We don't know.

It's not that this question is nonsense, it's simply that we don't have access to the data that would answer it. From a philosophical perspective we have no firm response to the solipsist. The best we can do is say that what appears to be the case most forcefully to our minds and senses (given our senses might be an illusion of the mind) is that the material world is so convincing that we might as well use it as a model for reality until we figure out a better one that actually fits with those facts that the 'apparent' material world imposes on us.

For example, if we were entirely mental phenomena (or a single phenomenon) why can't we get past the apparent material death of another mind (or my illusion of another mind)? The material non-supernatural explanation fits this and many other problems so easily that it's a sufficient model for now.

The rest of the answers are given with respect to this point of view.

2) What caused the Universe?

We don't know.

So far we, and our instruments, haven't had physical presence far beyond our solar system, and in person not beyond the moon. So, all our observations of this universe are restricted to hypotheses based on remote (in time and space) observations. Some hypotheses have mathematical reasoning to lend them some weight. But really, we don't know.

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?

We don't know. We'd need to resolve problem (2) to get any further with this. We observe regularities, but we can't explain them in any deep sense.

4) Of the Four Causes in nature...

We don't know.

This is philosophy going beyond the bounds of available or accessible knowledge and is more akin to theology. 

Specifically, do final causes exists? Well, if we could answer some more questions on causality that would be a start. But then we come up against the same problem of accessibility of the data. And, the question isn't clear on meaning of 'final cause'.

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?

Given (1) this can only be answered in atheist materialist terms, and within that context the understanding of matter and how life is just a formation of matter in action, and from there on to evolution. I'll keep this short, but would be glad to expand on request.

All matter responds to interaction with other matter. Things bounce. At some basic levels we have explanations for this - such as the coming together of atoms of my skin with those of the table, where despite that fact that atoms are mostly space, the electric and nuclear forces stop atoms merging or flowing through each other.

Basic life is complex formations of matter. We still don't know anything concrete about the beginnings of life, abiogenesis, but the basic hypothesis is that early replicators began the process - try thinking of something like growing crystals, though even this seems an inadequate analogy. The problem with all of this, life, is that we only have life on this planet to examine, that the origins are in the distant past, and anywhere the same process began spontaneously it would be consumed by local chemical reactions or organisms.

Form there, simple single cell life forms react in very complex ways compared to simple elements and molecules - but their responses to contact with other inanimate matter and other living organisms is basically physical and chemical. They go around bumping into stuff, and when they do chemical reactions on their surfaces give rise to further activity.

Complex cells formed by the combination of different single celled entities - i.e. mitochondria. Complex multi-cellular organisms formed cohesive bodies and functionality was subsumed to different organs. In a soft celled multi-organ organism think of the combination like a turtle and its shell. The inner soft and delicate organs don't need protection from the environment if outer organs are dedicated to that task - e.g. skin. 

So, at this stage we have complex systems, of which one component is a nervous system that co-ordinates activity for the organism as a whole. Not all organisms use this approach - e.g. plants. But there seems to be a relationship between the motor capabilities of the organism and the complexity of its nervous system.

Given that one aspect of the nervous system is to respond to the environment in order to direct processes in the organism, and to direct it's motion, required to find food, one natural outcome is that the organism should be able to detect itself. No point in eating your own arm is there. And this is the basis for self awareness, which most organisms have to some degree if they have a nervous system that samples the environment.

Mammals have multi-mode senses - sight, hearing, touch... And these need co-ordination if they are to be useful. The chicken egg answer is that complexity of nervous system and co-ordination of senses probably evolved together, each effecting the development of the other.

It seems a natural progression that when an organism gets to a certain degree of complexity this self-sensing can include sensing the very internal processes of nervous system itself. In us this isn't complete, since there's a big part of our sub-conscious nervous system of which we're not aware. But basically subjectivity is simply what it appears like when an organism senses it's own nervous system in action.

6) Why is the human mind intentional...

(5) pretty much answers this.

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)

It's a subjective (see 5) conceptual product that has evolved in a social sense, but is based on biologically evolved feelings of empathy and sympathy.

See here for more detail.

8) Why is there evil?

There isn't, in any objective sense, any more than there is moral law (see 7).

Evil is simply a classification of behaviour that humans typically ascribe to the behaviour of other humans. 

Sometimes it can be conflated with suffering generally, such as the as a consequence of natural disasters, but that notion is only the concoction of those religious people who think natural disasters are associated with demons or with divine retribution.

We don't ascribe the term 'evil' to thinks that animals do which if performed by humans would be classified as evil. This is again due to the confused thinking of the religious who think that humans have some special gift, or some special place in the universe, or some special relationship with some god or other, and that some or all of these misconceptions give special meaning to human actions we generally disapprove of.

Perhaps the main point I'd want to make is that theists are in exactly the same position. They don't know. But what they do is make up an answer with no substantiating data and claim that to be the case. They think that the combination of ancient tradition and pseudo-profound language gives credibility to their view, but it really exposes their gullibility to ancient stories from a time when such ignorance was excusable for lack of any reasonable data.

There has been no evidence for religious claims that can be substantiated by third party examination. All subjective personal claims about religious experience have plausible explanations in a materialist world view, where various results of brain sciences can replicate or account for those experiences.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Love - Something Humans Do

On Lesley's post Peter Rollins - What is Religion? I've been trying to understand what Rollins is saying, without much success. But in the ensuing comments I claimed that love is just something that humans do - my intended implication being it is nothing to do with a god, or specifically God.

Kathryn asked, "Why do you think this [love] is something humans do? Do you think it is a genetic fluke, or is there some purpose?", and I wanted to give a more complete response than I could in a comment on Lesley's post.

It's a fluke in one sense: the sense that it just turned out that way due to evolution, without any intentionality or direct design or purpose. But that 'fluke' is not to be confused with ID critiques of evolution that say evolution relies on impossible odds. Fluke, luck, random events, whatever we might call them, have a part to play in evolution, but the theory of evolution shows that other forces, such as natural selection, play on those flukes in order to cause some change that persists.

The significant point from an evolutionary perspective is that traits that have some benefit in some sets of circumstances are more likely to survive.

Some simplistic examples to make the point and put love in context (for sexually reproductive species)...

A genetic condition (e.g. a mutation) that caused infertility would not be passed on to the next generation at all. Another mutation that didn't effect fertility but did remove sexual lust would also die out quickly in most animals (though humans, with our cognitive abailities, could overcome this). An emotion like love may not be as necessary at all for short term survival, but may be necessary in some species for greater group cohesion, or perhaps mother-infant bonding. Both fertility and lust are necessary for reproduction in sexually reproductive animals, but love isn't.

But we can still see how love can provide a greater benefit than not experiencing love, for some species.

Fertility we count as a physiological trait, love as an emotional one, but lust we see more as something of both physiological and emotional - so, where's the divide between physical trait and emotional trait? When you get down to the chemistry of what's going on in the brain they are, all three, physiological traits, each with their own contribution to the survivability of a species (along with all other influences). We have no reason to suppose that love is anything other than this, and certainly no evidence that it has any special meaning or value outside the context of humans that, using our brains, give it meaning and value. it's not something we need to associate with God, despite that fact that theists tend to raise it to the level of the divine.

Evolution doesn't have a purpose as such - and so there is no purpose for love. There is a trivial descriptive sense in which, looking back, we might use a purposive description - e.g. 'the purpose of this gene sequence was to cause that trait to emerge...' (again, a simplistic view of genes) But this isn't purpose in the sense of an agent intentionally causing some trait to appear for particular purpose of his. We are used to attributing purpose to the things we do, and we can mistakenly attribute purpose to complex causal chains that are otherwise hard to describe. It can be helpful to describe causal chains with such anthropomorphic framing of purpose - but we need to be careful that we understand that this purpose isn't real, it's a metaphor for causality.

So, there is nothing in our evolutionary past which could predict, in any reasonable sense, that love would turn out to be a trait that a particular species valued highly. There are clues available to the hindsight we have acquired through the development of the theory of evolution, based on our understanding of empathy and attachment that bond animal parents to young, and in some cases parents to each other. Insects have a very specific type of bond to their fellows nest, which is basically chemical. So, love (or its simpler animal parallel) isn't necessary for all animals to be evolutionarily successful - though for larger animals with more complex brains it may be particularly beneficial. We think it's beneficial for us - so much so we have learned to value it highly.

In this sense love is just what humans do, without it having any directive purpose. It's one of the many things we do, along with hate, fear, lust, empathy and many other traits. They all boil down to having emerged through our evolutionary history, and having been developed in our intellectual and cultural history.

Perhaps a better phrasing might be love is just what humans did in the past as a more refined development of empathy, but which we do now with more purpose and intent as we have come to appreciate it and value it.

We can reasonably explain the relationship between some of these things we do, in this simplified evolutionary context...

Personally and subjectively we like the feeling of love, and we dislike the feeling of fear. Our empathy makes us appreciate the same perspective in others, so we want love for others as well as for ourselves, and part of that is that we get additional pleasure from giving love, and even more from reciprocative love. And conversely we dislike fear, we dislike seeing fear in others, and so we want to alleviate the fear we see in others. And, on top of that we dislike seeing others cause fear, because of our empathy for the victims; and in a simple sense, just as a mother responds to defend her young with the animal equivalent of anger, so we respond with anger towards those that cause fear. These are strong innate emotional responses, honed in our history, with their origins lost in myth.

Many of our basic emotions have parallels in other animals, but have been developed into more refined concepts by us, probably because of the concurrent development of our language and our brain's ability to be more acute in our understanding of these emotions and the concepts we form about them. Just as a musician can develop a more acute sense of musical notes (an analogy Kathryn uses).

The problem is we don't often consider the simpler animal basis for our complex emotions - partly because of our ignorance of the evolutionary perspective. This ignorance was understandable for most of human history in which our reach back to the past was only ever measured in terms of a few generations. We could only develop myths out of that ignorance - ironically using the very creative imagination that later allowed us to come up with the science that helped us discover more plausible explanations.

The weight of those myths persists, and is maintained in varying degrees by a continued ignorance of the significance of what evolution is telling us, along with the willing, and sometimes not so willing, indoctrination in and bias towards those myths. Even those theists that have an understanding of evolution find it hard to accept the full implications of evolution and related ideas when they challenge their theological beliefs - they sometimes express a fear of the consequences of following the ideas through - e.g. the fear of the nihilism of atheism, in the absence of God.

To help a theist put this in perspective, consider some of the cosmological ideas that are floating around - many of which theists use as examples of how science has its own myths. In some respects our old myths parallel the current speculations about our cosmological origins - the old myths were speculations in the absence of data, just as some of our cosmological ideas are speculations in the absence of data. In some cases the mathematical theory of the latter replaces imaginative theology of the former, and so cosmologists might feel their theories have a greater legitimacy than theologies. But there may come a time, when we are better informed, when some our current cosmological speculations seem more like myths. So, this is how now atheists see theologies as outdated myths.

The deep history of religion is interesting, but I'm still largely ignorant about it. One particular book on my reading list is The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright. It appears to put the contingency of Christianity in perspective, effectively explaining the myth. It's the historical perspective that I need to know more about; and I suspect many Christians need to know more about it too, but without their own theological bias. If ever there was a case of the winners getting to write the history, theology is it - I don't think much of the history of theology sees the light of day. I don't know to what extent history of theology is taught in this respect. The book's website gives a good sampling of the book and is worth a read.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Bring On The Lions

No, I'm not referring to the up-coming England match. It's a much more serious issue than that. Or at least Christians think so.

Even my very fair minded liberal Christian friend Lesley is concerned, after reading this article in GQ

When saying 'damning', who or what does Lesley think is being damned? The nation, for it's loss of faith? Or those that remain Christians, for this reason, "Their case was too weak, their opposition to divorce and abortion and gay people too cruel, their evidence for their claims nonexistent." It does sound a little like role reversal; you know, the rapture of irreligion, and the left behind of the faithful, stuck at the bus stop on a cold wintery day not knowing the last bus has been cancelled.

This point is right, "'s only natural that we should dismantle the massive amounts of tax money and state power that are given to the religious. It's a necessary process of building a secular state, where all citizens are free to make up their own minds.", which will make it fair for all. But I can understand the fear in the CoE at losing privilege.

When I read this and what followed, "Really? Let's list some of the ways in which Christians and other religious groups are given special privileges,..." I realised that it was religious privilege that the article was damning after all.

This was particularly damning of Mormons in '78, "Until 1978, the Mormon Church said black people didn't have souls. (They only changed their mind the day this was made illegal, and God niftily appeared to their leader to say they were ensouled after all.)"

This "In response, Carey and the Church of England demanded Christians be allowed to break the law" and the recent nonsense at the Gen Synod continues to be damning of the CoE now. And don't get me started on RC and Islam.

Why do we have to resort to law to demand equality from religions? Christians are often quick to tell us of their valiant role in the abolition of slavery and their many other fights against injustice. OK all Christians, put up or shut up. Stop all prejudice and privilege - voluntarily! Let the ABC call for this now (I won't hold my breath - he'd rather have Sharia). Let's move to a secular nation, in education and government, that's equal to all. You'll be surprised how quickly atheists lose interest in your religion. Hold on. That's precisely what Christians are afraid of isn't it. Silly me.

The feelings of persecution even extend to the repeated mistake of thinking atheists want to abolish religion. This is from a comment by Chris, "The New Atheists seem to think a secular society is one that rejects religion" - No, quite wrong. That's what Christians think New Atheists seem to think. You being a case in point :) We (atheists new and old) know what it means, and you too would know that we know, if only you knew more about New Atheists, and old atheists.

Chris, "In fact, most countries with a secular constitution see secularism as protecting religion." - Try telling that to Christians in America, with it's very purposeful secular constitution. I can't figure out why even having such a specific constitution isn't clear enough. Oh, hold on. Got it. After centuries of selectively reading the Bible Christians are primed to read a constitution and see in it the very opposite of what is written.

And, what's more Chris, when you've figured this out, could you let Tony Blair know: "Tony Blair warns that Christians must speak out in 'aggressively secularist' age" - The problem is, Tone, Christians and other faithful have been speaking out all too loudly for centuries now. "But he has since converted to Roman Catholicism and set up the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to "promote respect and understanding about the world's major religions". " - Well, Tone, religions might have earned a little respect if they hadn't been partying on so loudly themselves, indulging to excess in privileges, and then hypocritically protesting as the hurt and offended when the neighbours open a window and shout at them to be quiet while everyone gets some peace.

Preacherwoman isn't keen on Johann Hari from GQ (God Quits? God's Quiet?, Garrulus Quadrigae?), pointing out his selective use of data. She makes a fair point. We do have to be careful not to impart our bias. But wasn't that the main point that the article went on to make, i.e. the whining by Carey and others about persecution, when religion has so many privileges? Hasn't religion always been biased?

It's not just Carey. This is from Cristina Odone, "Afraid to be a Christian? Who can blame you? The authorities, the media and the chattering classes are forever trying to run you down. We don’t have to brave the Colosseum, with its rapacious lions; we don’t have to wear an identifying badge; or meet in secret – yet." - What?! Let's form two queues - one of atheists who want a secular nation with freedom to think and choose our world view without favour to any, and another one of atheists who want to ban religion. I'm sure Carey and Odone think we're all in the near empty latter. They're confused by this secular call for freedom. Being so familiar with the centuries of persecution by the religious they think that once they lose power they'll be burned at the stake.

"Christians need to be as strident as Muslims" she says. Well, that makes a change from Christians bemoaning how strident a few atheists are. But again she makes the mistake of bias again. The strident atheists are calling for freedom for all, and would protect the rights of Christians and Muslims alike - we're just saying we won't protect the current privilege of Christians or Muslims, and won't give in to the strident calls for privilege. The stridency isn't the problem, it's what one is calling for that counts.

"But there is no doubt that many are afraid to be Christian. They will watch anxiously today as Shirley Chaplin will fight the NHS in an employment tribunal." - For heaven's sake, is there no end to the whining. Thankfully the tribunal saw sense.

But Chaplin "...had the support of a number of bishops who claim that Christians are being persecuted in an increasingly secular society." How very Christian. I really do think some won't be satisfied until there's a Colosseum in Trafalgar Square, "Ha! to a mosque at Ground Zero. We Brits will show you how to be persecuted. Bring on the lions."

Monday, 30 August 2010

Heavenly Science

I'm sometimes asked if I'm spiritual. Of course I'm not spiritual in the theistic sense, being an atheist, but there are atheists who consider themselves spiritual beings: Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, for example. I don't think I am, but I do have a sense of wonder and awe about the world, whether it's about our cosmological origins, or the new ideas in earthly sciences.

I guess this is the closest I'd come to heaven - being surrounded by fascinating people figuring out what makes the world go round, and how to make it go round better. Their enthusiasm is palpable.

For all Christians go on about what their God gives them it just seems pretty lame compared to discovering new stuff about the universe, or creating fascinating new content that solves very human problems.

Science Foo Camp 2009: by Nature Video.

I guess this un-conference format doesn't make for easy video, and it's by invite only. But I'd love to be a fly on the wall. Maybe that's something that could come out of this type of event. We need a really cool new method of experiencing these events as if we were there.


Some scientists and mathematicians can have experiences that can be considered revelations:

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Harris, Religion, Rape

The Harris religion and rape issue is inflaming opinion, still. This particular storm is about the comment he made in an interview with Bethany Saltman in 2006, and this particular sentence:

"I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion."

The Beginning

But let's go back to where it started, with his book, Letter To A Christian Nation, 2006, which prompted the Saltman interview.

Naturally, for religious people that haven't read the book but who like to pick up on the nasty things atheists say on their journey to eternal damnation in the next life, then the whole concept of comparing their precious religion with rape is pretty shocking. And it looks like Harris has handed them a stick with which they can give him a damned good thrashing.

Trouble is, in their rush to read only the bad, they miss the point. Here's the section from the book where rape is first raised.

"As a biological phenomenon, religion is the product of cognitive processes that have deep roots in our evolutionary past. Some researchers have speculated that religion itself may have played an important role in getting large groups of prehistoric humans to socially cohere. If this is true, we can say religion has served an important purpose. This does not suggest, however, that it serves an important purpose now. There is, after all nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors. That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization."

Here he is clearly using it to point out that because something has natural origins we don't have to think it acceptable behaviour now. It's used as an analogy.

But it's an analogy that many religious people don't get. And because they don't get it they've come over all of a froth, because of the dreaded word 'rape' - such a taboo word.


My pop-psychology point of the day is that religious people are so used to selective reading when it comes to the holy books, so used to interpreting anything they read in order to give an affirmative bias towards their religion and a negative bias against anything that challenges it, that they are simply confused by analogies, not knowing when to read something literally and when to interpret it as an analogy, or even how to figure out what work the analogy is doing.

Here's a case in point. Suem wonders why there is so much outrage over Xola Skosana's sermon that included 'Jesus with HIV analogy'.

Suem asks, "Don’t people understand that analogies and metaphors are not meant to be definitive statements" - No they don't.

They don't get The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or fairy analogies. Here the point of the analogy is not to liken God to the obviously ridiculous FSM or fairies.

The FSM analogy is about the reasoning that gets you from some hypothesis, such as there is a God, or there is an FSM, to a full explanation, a theology, and even descriptions of characteristics of this hypothetical entity, without any evidence whatsoever.

The whole point of picking obvious nonsensical entities as the object of belief is to show that the same reasoning or faith that gives you God can give you these others; and so the reasoning and the faith is a flawed way of acquiring truth about the entity.

So, similarly, the point of Harris using 'rape' in this specific case in his book is to show that the analogous aspects of religion and rape is that because they had evolutionary advantage at some point doesn't make them beneficial now. Here rape is not meant to be analogous to religion directly.

Symbolically it's like this:

A has some aspect X
B has some aspect X

A is religion.
Where B is rape, X is the past evolutionary benefit of religion and rape.
Where B is the FSM, X is the poor reasoning about theology of religion and the FSM.

So, here's the argument.
A has aspect X, and is therefore good.
But B has aspect X, and B is clearly not good.
So, having aspect X is no indication of B or A being good.

The religious could save a lot of unnecessary argument if they took the trouble to figure out what the analogy is about.

The Harris - Saltman Interview

As if the religious hadn't got hold of the wrong end of the stick already, Harris gives them another excuse to fume. And fume they do.

Here's the 2006 article in which the next scene in the melodrama takes place. (Here's a pdf).

Let's have a look at what else he says before we get to the crutial point. Though many religious people might disagree with many of his points, there are some who do see his issues with religion when it comes to the more fundamental flavour. Here's how it goes towards the end of page 1 of The Sun web site version:

Saltman: "Isn't religion a natural outgrowth of human nature?"

Harris: "It almost certainly is. But everything we do is a natural outgrowth of human nature. Genocide is. Rape is. No one would ever think of arguing that this makes genocide or rape a necessary feature of a civilized society. Even if you had a detailed story about the essential purpose religion has served for the past fifty thousand years, even if you could prove that humanity would not have survived without believing in a creator God, that would not mean that it’s a good idea to believe in a creator God now, in a twenty-first-century world that has been shattered into separate moral communities on the basis of religious ideas.

Traditionally, religion has been the receptacle of some good and ennobling features of our psychology. It’s the arena in which people talk about contemplative experience and ethics. And I do think contemplative experience and ethics are absolutely essential to human happiness. I just think we now have to speak about them without endorsing any divisive mythology."

Note that both genocide and rape are given as examples. Clearly Harris is referring to the analogy, as I described it above. Being a natural human behaviour does not mean that it has any benefit now.

But Harris isn't saying benefit can't be derived from religion. To go back to the book, Letter To A Christian Nation, Harris knows full well that some people do derive benefit from religion:

"I have no doubt that your acceptance of Christ coincided with some very positive changes in your life. Perhaps you now love other people in a way you never imagined possible. You may even experience feelings of bliss while praying. I do not wish to denigrate any of these experiences. I would point out however, that billions of human beings, in every time and place, have had similar experiences - but they had them while thinking about Krishna, or Allah, or the Buddha, while making art or music, or while contemplating the beauty of nature"

So clearly, despite what some critics claim, he doesn't see all religious experience in the same light. But his main point is that overall it is detrimental to society.

I'll skip ahead slightly in the interview, past the offending words, just to make it clear Harris isn't a baby eater.

Harris: "Even Christian fundamentalists have learned, by and large, to ignore the most barbaric passages in the Bible. ...[some details about specific problems]...Now, these people are not evil. They're just concerned about the wrong things, because they have imbibed these unjustifiable religious taboos. There is no question, however, that these false concerns add to the world's misery."

Saltman: "If we were to eliminate religious identity, wouldn't something else take its place?"

Harris: "Not necessarily. Look at what's going on in Western Europe: some societies there are successfully undoing their commitment to religious identity, and I don't think it is being replaced by anything. Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Australia, and Japan are all developed societies with a high level of atheism, and the religion they do have is not the populist, fundamentalist, shrill version we have in the U.S. So secularism is achievable... [my emphasis]

See, he recognises some religions aren't so bad.

"...I think the human urge to identify with a subset of the population is something that we should be skeptical of in all its forms. Nationalism and tribal affiliations are divisive, too, and therefore dangerous. Even being a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan has its liabilities, if pushed too far."

[page 3]

Saltman: "So you see Buddhist meditation not as a religious practice, but as something that can yield results."

Harris: "Clearly, there are results to any religious practice. A Christian might say, "If you pray to Jesus, you'll notice a change in your life." And I don't dispute that. The crucial distinction between the teachings of Buddhism and the teachings of Western religions is that with Buddhism, you don't have to believe anything on faith to get the process started."

Harris Hates All Religions?

Again I need to emphasise the fact that Harris does distinguish between degrees of religious fundamentalism and the associated harms. Remember that when we get to the crunch statement.

Saltman: "Do you think that there is such a thing as a peaceful religion?"

Harris: "Oh, sure. Jainism is the best example that I know of. It emerged in India at more or less the same time as Buddhism. Nonviolence is its core doctrine. Jain "extremists" wear masks in order to avoid breathing in any living thing. To be a practicing Jain, you have to be a vegetarian and a pacifist. So the more "deranged" and dogmatic a Jain becomes, the less likely he or she is to harm living beings.
Jains probably believe certain things on insufficient evidence, and that's not a good idea, in my opinion. I can even imagine a scenario in which Jain dogma could get people killed: I don't actually know what Jains say on this subject, but let's say they became unwilling to kill even bacteria and forbade the use of antibiotics."


Harris: "...They [evangelicals] have a great fear that unless we believe the Bible was written by the creator of the universe, we have no real reason to treat one another well, and I think there's no evidence for that whatsoever. It's just fundamentally untrue that people who do not believe in God are more prone to violent crime, for instance. The evidence, if anything, runs the other way. If you look at where we have the most violent crime and the most theft in the United States, it's not in the secular-leaning blue states. It's in the red states, with all their religiosity. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the United States are in Texas.

Now, I'm not saying that we can look at this data and say, "Religion causes violence." But you can look at this data and say that high levels of religious affiliation don't guarantee that people are going to behave well. Likewise if you look at UN rankings of societies in terms of development — which includes levels of violent crime, infant mortality, and literacy — the most atheistic societies on the planet rank the highest: Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark. So there is no evidence that a strong commitment to the literal truth of one's religious doctrine is a good indicator of societal health or morality."

So, just to emphasise the point again. Harris does not see all religions as being as bad as each other. Harris does see people gaining some benefits from religion, though he thinks there are better ways. Harris does not think religion is the cause of all evil. Harris does not think all religion is evil. Nowhere does Harris actually call for the forced curtailment of religious belief. In all of this he is making very straight forward arguments about what he finds wrong with religion.

The Evil Atheists

Of course no discussion about religion is complete without a comment on the evil that atheists do. And nearly every religious person gets this point wrong. Saltman is playing devil's advocate here of course.

Saltman: "Atheism doesn't always go hand in hand with reason and compassion. Look at the destruction and violence caused by atheist ideology in China and the old Soviet Union."

Harris: "What I'm really arguing against is dogma, and those communist systems of belief were every bit as dogmatic as religious systems. In fact, I'd call them 'political religions'. But no culture in human history ever suffered because its people became too reasonable or too desirous of having evidence in defense of their core beliefs. Whenever people start committing genocide or hurling women and children into mass graves, I think it's worth asking what they believe about the universe. My reading of history suggests that they always believe something that's obviously indefensible and dogmatic."

And just to re-state the point made countless times, none of this was done in the name of atheism. Atheism isn't a dogmatic belief system that anyone does anything in the name of. And atheists are not claiming religion is the cause of all ills, or that all atheists are whitere than white. So, can we drop this red herring.

The Magic Wand of Harris

OK. Let's get to the main point. The offending place is top of page 2.

Saltman: "Your analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory. Is that intentional?"

Harris: "I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology. I would not say that all human conflict is born of religion or religious differences, but for the human community to be fractured on the basis of religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, in an age when nuclear weapons are proliferating, is a terrifying scenario. I think we do the world a disservice when we suggest that religions are generally benign and not fundamentally divisive."

Now, given the context in which the original analogy was used, this is just an extension of that. Here's the analogy:

A causes an amount of suffering.
B causes an amount of suffering.

Here A is rape, and B is religion. And on his assessment religion causes more harm than rape.

So, if he could wish away one of them he thinks the best option would be religion, as removing it would reduce harm the most.

Note that this is a simple thought experiment, wishful thinking, and as such has no specific bad consequences. For example, if it clearly was a magic wish that did the trick he'd no doubt want all the currently religious people to be simply non-religious - so it's not as if he would be causing more suffering by removing religion, the newly non-religious wouldn't feel they were deprived of religion. And we could still carry on trying to stop rape, so it's not as if Harris is condoning rape. It just happens to be an unwanted human behaviour that he uses in an analogy.

There really isn't that much to this statement after all, given the context. It's ridiculous how many religious people have tried to get mileage out of it since he maed it.

A More Literal Comparison

But what if he was to have meant it to be taken seriously. Is religion worse than rape? You'll have to ask Harris yourself, if you still think he's the son of Satan for uttering the words 'rape' and 'religion' in the same breath. But here's my understanding of what he said and how to interpret it, should you want to take it as a literal intention by Harris.

1) Individual rape can 'harm' one victim at a time. I'm not aware of any person being able to rape more than one person at once. This is basically a one-on-one act. Annually ( it might be 500,000 a year, accounting for unreported rape.

2) Nuclear weapons or biological weapons can 'kill and harm' hundreds of thousands or millions at a time. It might take more than one person to achieve this, but the ratios are still pretty high: one-to-hundreds-of-thousands, or one-to-millions.

3) Extreme religion probably has the highest potential for (2) currently.

4) All religions, by setting faith above reason, are self affirming systems that can, under some circumstances, provide the right framework for (3), and hence (2). That framework of extreme religions exists now, and this has been a self-evident fact since 9/11. Some small number of people with religious motivations killed thousands of people, directly and in the aftermath. And 9/11 was the catalyst for a war that kill even more. 9/11 is still invoking religious hatred now at ground zero. That's before we get to the many conflicts around the world that are going on now that have a religious element, if not done in the name of religion. Harris covers plenty in his book.

Note to liberals: the extensive use of reason on top of faith is not a get out of jail card. Faith plus speculation is a poor move. It just happens to be a really bad move in the hands of terrorist fanatics.

5) The same applies to all dogmas that affirm their beliefs and aren't subjected to sufficient scepticism. So, it's not just religion Harris is objecting to. But currently religion is the most dangerous in his view.

Again, a note to easily offended moderates and liberals: just because you're pretty harmless doesn't change the fact that religion in the wrong hands is dangerous.

6) Bonus point: without religion there's no RC church, which reduces the number of rapes and abuses a little. And since many of the genocidal wars around the world also include rape, then if removing religion could reduce the number of such wars then there'd be less rape anyway.

7) Harris isn't calling for or expecting the abolition of religion - some people have mistaken his statements here for that. Harris believes in freedom of religious belief. His statement was hypothetical wishful thinking. His point being that if it were possible for religion to suddenly vanish, that would be a better outcome than if all men suddenly stopped raping.

Now I know some people don't like it when we try to evaluate relative harms, when we try to be objective about them. They find something distasteful and taboo about even considering it.

Here's a response to Harris, "I would like to ask Sam Harris what personal experience he has of rape." Why is this relevant? What is my experience of rape or being the victim of a suicide bomber? None.

Another question to Harris, "And I wonder how it would feel to have been subjected to rape and then to hear a statement such as Harris's?" - Or how it would feel to have your family taken by a suicide bomber or abducted and beheaded by terrorists, of kill leaving his place of work, or blown up in an Irish pub.

These are very one sided questions. Do we have to experience every suffering to have any regard for the sufferer? What do you think human empathy is all about? what do you think it is that has been driving your own morals all this time? God?


Having read Letter To A Christian Nation, and the interview with Saltman, I don't think Harris has said anything particularly controversial. Dispite that being my opinion, of course Harris may well have made the statements specifically to be controversial. Maybe his remark about being inflammatory was calculated. You'll have to ask Harris. But on first reading it I hadn't noticed anything particularly bad about it - just a rhetorical flourish. I'm often surprised how the religious, who survive on emotive language, don't particularly like it when their religion is the target.

We can take any version of his rape statements: analogy of natural evolved benefit no longer being beneficial; a thought experiment, a wish, that religion wasn't present; or a more literal calculation of least harm. Each interpretation of Harris's words are really not that controversial - except to the extent that the religious like to find fault with Harris.

Harris, throughout his book and interview is quite gracious about the people of religion. He sees their particular problem as being that they have been misguided by religion. He simply dislikes the principle of religion and faith that can provide a framework for fundamental atrocities.

So, here are the words again:

"I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion."

Out of context I guess they could be misconstrued. And the problem is they usually are taken out of context - as seen in a blog from a blog from the original source. And comments are made on the basis of the sentences here, or the fuller paragraph given earlier. But I see them as quite harmless in context, particularly the wider context of the book and the interview.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Atheists Against Religion - Misconceptions

Some theists seem to get the wrong impression about atheism and atheists, with regard to the extent and type of opposition to theism and religion. I think this occurs because several issues become conflated in discussions between theists and atheists. Some theists seem to think that atheists want to abolish religion or censor it; but they are confusion the following: genuine desire to stop some religious practices and privileges; the desire for a secular state; and intellectual disagreement on the validity of religious belief.

They are all issues that should be considered separately.

Opposition To Faith Schools
The objection to faith schools is because of indoctrination on young minds and the fact that one faith view is projected. Most humanist atheists want schools to be secular, which only means no religious or other world view bias (not even atheism), not the censorship of religion. We actually want education to include information about all religions and other world views and basic philosophy in a non-biased here-it-is make what you want of it sort of way. There's no requirement to impose the atheist or humanist world view above others.

My children attended a Roman Catholic school, which preached RC Christianity. Both my children said that when they compared notes with friends at a state school the coverage of other faiths was quite different. The Roman Catholic school had given feint acknowledgement to other faiths whereas the state school was more open about discussing the variations of the details of the different faiths. I don't know to what extent a difference in teachers played a part, and I've no detailed experience of other faith schools. But in principle I'm opposed to the promotion of a particular faith.

Faith schools breed division. This I know from my personal school experiences, where a predominantly CoE state school backed on to a Roman Catholic school - pupils were always at war, and though most pupils probably weren't particularly religious, the religious difference was a focus of difference. This inevitable divisiveness has also been commented on with regard to Norther Ireland many times. In Oldham there is currently a plan to form a mixed academy to replace the current Christian dominated school and Muslim dominated school in areas that resulted in race/faith/culture riots ten years ago.

Abolishing Religion
The wish by atheists that religions did not exist is just that, a wish. Not necessarily that they never existed - there is no requirement to change history. The wish is that religions would begin to fade away - starting with the most obnoxious elements of each religion, because we think in the long term society will be better when it has gone. Note that isn't saying atheist humanism is the cure for all ills.

And this wish isn't expressed in any political sense. There is no way in which humanist atheists want to censor or ban religion or religious thought. The very nature of atheist humanism, or in this context secular humanism, is that the state should not be involved at all in personal world views, and that everyone should be free to choose their own world view. There are many unknowns about the universe, regarding its origins and its makeup. The God hypothesis is a reasonable one, so given the free-thought imperative of secular humanists there is no requirement to stop people believing in God.

Secular State
The political desire for a secular state is not a request for censorship, it's the request for the removal of a religious bias and privilege that is already present. What's the alternative to removing bishops from the House of Lords as religious political posts? Add more bishops representing every faith in proportion to the faith adherents? Add atheists specifically because they are atheists? what about Wiccans and other belief systems? A Lord of New Age? No, the most equitable route is to remove all posts relating to religion and have people there on merit of by election - depending on the desired makeup. This then does not prevent religious leaders being members; they would simply be members for some other reason; hopefully, merit.

The wider issue of a state church is slightly less significant to me, though many British Muslims might disagree. We have a lot invested in our culture associated with our churches, armed services, state events, etc., that currently have a close association with religion. I'm in no hurry to see these go since they are quite benign, colourful and culturally of historic interest, in terms of the state. I don't, for example, have an issue with traditions that date back to more feudal times, such as the monarchy and knighthoods and so on. They just need disassociating from the executive branch of the state.

Intellectual Opposition
The intellectual objection to theism, as opposed to particular religious organisations that implement those theisms, is purely that, and intellectual one of the understanding of the philosophy and science of it all. Again the free-thought nature of secular humanism supports the unrestricted examination of all philosophical views and wants to engage freely in debates about these issues. Historically it has been religion that has wanted to censor views and interfere in the free thinking, free expression and free action of others that don't agree with them.

It's a bit rich for anyone associated with these ancient religions to accuse atheists of censorship - it couldn't be further from the truth for atheism, while at the same time most religions don't have a good record on censorship.

Anti-religion is the opposition to some or all religions. Personally I am strongly anti-religious when it comes to the more dogmatic religions.

There are many aspects of Islam, such as it's political desire to dominate that is such an important and freely expressed part of the religion, and the discrimination inherent in Islam against non-Muslims in Islamic state governance. These are inherent parts of Islam, given that they are stated in the Koran or Hadith. Islam would have to go through a radical change for me not to be anti-Islam. But there are many Muslims who would like to see such change, and I'd support them in that without wishing to have them give up non-political or otherwise humane aspects of their faith. If some Muslims think atheists have an unfair view of Islam then they need to start making their more moderate voices heard, not only by atheists, but by the more radical Muslims.

There are many aspects of fundamentalist Christianity that make me anti-those sects, such as the intense indoctrination of children into psychologically damaging beliefs about being sinners and being damned to hell. I am less anti-liberal-Christianity, though I do disagree with its ideas on intellectual grounds. Other atheists may have a more blanket anti-religious stance.

Atheists generally do want to stop faith schools, political privilege, any particularly unfair practices, and to work towards a secular state.

Atheists generally are willing to debate theism as opposed to atheism on intellectual philosophical grounds.

Atheists may also be happy to see the back of religion. But one of the main principles of free-though humanist atheists is the right to practice ones own belief system, and so would want to defend anyone's right to belief, as long as the practice of that belief is not contrary to the freedoms of other people.

My personal feelings is that I have no problem with self-funded religions and places of worship. I quite like some aspects of the CoE; I like to visit old churches; I enjoy some religious music, though I have no interest in the content of any songs or hymns; I like to visit grand cathedrals and mosques. I suppose my interest is atmospheric and historic. I have fond memories of some vicars from when I was young in the Boys Brigade - even our local tyrant was fair. So, other than the issues above I'm not that anti-religious.

And I enjoy a good argument.

So, in general atheists don't want to burn theists at the stake, stone them or decapitate them, or condemn them to hell or whatever the atheist equivalent might be (which according to some theists would be for them to become atheists). Live and let live - if only they all would.

Saturday, 14 August 2010


In the debate about Sam Harris on science and morality (links in this post) I want to side-step some of the philosophy, because much of it is influenced by the armchair philosophy of the past when science had nothing to offer at all, a time when philosophers plumbed the depths of their minds searching for something solid that indicated dry land in sight.

I see all moral codes as arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. They mean nothing outside a biological and social evolution. Prior to the evolution of consciousness, self-awareness and language what we think of as morals would have been biological imperatives. It's our self-awareness, empathy, language and the classification of ideas that has caused us to label behaviour as good, bad, evil, right, wrong, moral, immoral. It's our deep remaining biological imperatives that dictate which of these labels, and hence which behaviours, we prefer.

Within the contexts of separately developing cultures of the past there was still scope for moral codes to emerge as quite different from one culture to another. It may even have been possible to live by the maxim, "When in Rome do as the Romans do", particularly for travellers who relished variety. Minority congregations that have travelled to a different culture still live by their own rules, and this can cause serious conflict of cultures - occasional 'honour killings' occur in the UK within cultures that value family honour greater than personal freedom and life of loved ones; and you can still get a good whisky in The United Arab Emirates, which restricts the purchase of alcohol from a liquor store to non-Muslim foreigners. We can see the social development of morals on top of biologically evolved imperatives.

Pre-TV we relied on news media that were much more susceptible of political and cultural influence. It was still possible for news reports to be so heavily censored, either for political reasons, or in acknowledgement of the sensitivity of the readers (i.e. the newspapers had a great concern for the dear ladies, and a fear of the indignant religious opinion). We were spared the blood and guts of foreign affairs. Only genuine travellers, and often soldiers, really knew the reality of events taking place elsewhere that didn't fit our coy world view.

Innocent ignorance was real. During WWII my mother, 14 at the time, live near an aircraft factory in Manchester. During one attack a German plane strafed them in the street as she was walking to school, but it was soon shot down. She and her friends went to see the monster that had parachuted into a nearby field - they were expecting a real monster, a dreadful beast of a man, and were utterly shocked so see a very handsome blond haired terrified young man who looked not much older than them. The propaganda about the evil 'Hun' had been only words on a crackly radio, but those words had evoked vivid nightmarish images that had attributed evil to every member of another nation - every German was immoral.

The growth of TV was primed nicely for the Vietnam war. Horror came right into our homes. The Sixties and Seventies saw the dawning of a questioning of the morality of our own governments like never before. The threat of nuclear annihilation was real, and we questioned the immoral madness of it.

The subsequent rise of postmodernism awoke in us an appreciation of the arbitrariness of our own standards. Moral relativism seemed a logical necessity if we were to apply the Golden Rule to whole cultures - what right did we have to dictate to others how they should behave.

But as we've witnessed more of what goes on in other cultures, particularly with the rise of the internet, we've begun to question the soundness of the moral relativist argument. Do the Johnny come lately cultural customs of acceptable behaviour overrule our deeper stronger biological imperatives?

It's difficult to pin down where the fault lies when we intuitively know there's a fault. Many atheists have been quick to condemn Islam for it's barbaric practices, only to learn that the cultural influence of the religion of Islam has itself been influenced by cultural values - some of the practices performed in the name of Islam are specific to one culture.

We know instinctively that female genital mutilation is 'bad', 'wrong', 'immoral'. Our empathy tells us this. But note even here, when I'm trying to be rational, the judgemental term 'mutilation' rather than 'female circumcision', or 'female genital cutting'.

Is the Jewish practice of circumcision also 'mutilation'? Some adult 'victims' think it is. But some non-Jews don't want to interfere with this ancient tradition, and yet are outspoken about female genital mutilation because, to us in the West, it's news; most of us weren't really aware it happened. Cutting was OK for Jesus, but not for some young girl? Yes, there are differences in what is cut - perhaps there might be greater outcry against circumcision if the male glans were cut off, as the clitoris is cut off in girls. What are the moral implications? Should we address this imbalance? Cut the skin but not the clitoris/glans; cut the clitoris and glans; or stop the practice altogether. Would it be immoral to interfere in both cultural practices, or just one, or to not interfere at all? Our gut feelings are in conflict with our own Western postmodern cultural relativism, resulting in a moral relativist angst.

How arbitrary is all that!

We have many instincts trying to get the attention of our conscious minds. Our empathy tells us killing is wrong. But our empathy for the killed is in conflict with our empathy for the killer, depending on the circumstances. If it's self-defense against an aggressive assault we side with the killer. Some found it difficult to side with the killed when Tony Martin shot dead a fleeing burglar. Even within our Western culture we can't always decide. Why? If morals are God given or absolutes, why is it so difficult to be consistent?

Morality doesn't come from some holy book, and it isn't written in the foundations of the cosmos. We evolved with it and invent it's varieties. And my moral instincts tell me that we need to figure out where we stand with our morals before we pass judgment. We need to understand the moral implications of our moral behaviour. We need to stop being so parochial and arbitrary, because otherwise we are betraying our own commitment to one of our most empathetically driven moral codes - fairness.

I know what I think morality is, but others have different views. We need to figure out what morality really is. We need to decide which culturally derived morals, or customs, are acceptable to our evolved instincts. Various international human rights organisations make fair attempts, but are often thwarted by member nations with cultures where the cultural customs have a more powerful base than science and reason.

Using philosophy alone we've raised questions but provided no answers. So if Sam Harris wants to try going down the route of using science, then I'm all for it. And in defense of Sam Harris, I really don't think he means that the abstract process that is 'science' make decisions for us, or that it (science) will dictate how we should behave. That decision is ours, using our reason, along with the science that we perform.

The behavioural act of performing science on issues relating to how we make moral decisions and how we attribute value, and how we measure value, and what we do with the data we uncover, is a complete and entirely human process that can only improve our moral behaviour. I really think this is what Sam Harris means.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Moral Facts - Sam Harris

In this post I plan to criticise some views, giving my opinion on where they go wrong, then ask some questions to which I have no answer, and then describe my particular view on the matter, without having the slightest confidence that I'm right. And, for good measure, I've every chance of contradicting myself on the way. It's not going to be short. This sounds about par for the course.

The Harris Problem...

It's all about what Sam Harris appears to be claiming in his TED Video. I blame Lesley for getting us into this mess, here, here and here. And now Gurder has turned this into a wider debate.

Sam Harris TED Talk...

I want to address the talk itself first,...

"It's thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value."

I think that's right, but with the caveat that it can give us data that can influence what we think we ought to value. I'm with the general agreement on Lesley's and Gurder's blogs and comments that science provides the data and that it's for us to form opinions about that data. At least I think I am.

There's a formulaic sense in which science can give us an 'ought', but it's the wrong sense of 'ought'. If I include in my ethics the 'least harm' principle, and then concoct some scenarios where there's a choice between harms - e.g. the Trolley Problem - then science could say I 'ought' to do such and such in a particular scenario to achieve least harm, then this isn't the moral 'ought'.

But for me this does then raise the questions, what is a moral 'ought'? Do morals exist, and if they do what are they?

Back to Harris,

"And, consequently, most people ... think that science will never answer the most important questions in human life: questions like, "What is worth living for?" "What is worth dying for?" "What constitutes a good life?" "

I think science can answer these questions, if we give science the goals that we want to achieve in the first place. Further more, I don't think these particular questions are moral questions. They may be personal judgements - a Royalist might think Prince Charles is worth dying for, a Republican might not. We need to be clear about what constitutes a moral question.

"So, I'm going to argue that this is an illusion -- that the separation between science and human values is an illusion..."

Let's see if he does.

"Now, it's often said that science can not give us a foundation for morality and human values,"

Now that depends on what is meant by 'foundation'. ('That depends' is a theme of this post) If it's a foundation of data upon which we can build our morality, our ethics, then yes, as long as we have the other elements of morality to go with this foundation. The stronger the foundation of facts the more informed we can be in building our morality. But the foundation of facts is not the full extent of our ethics - maybe. Don't we need our moral goals in place to use these facts?

I think this is where Harris goes wrong.

"Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures."

Yes, they become facts in their own right, once we decide what they are - it is a fact that most humans believe murder is wrong. It may be a fact of biological and cultural evolution that has caused most humans to hold that view, and so on. But what is fact about why we should think that we should hold this view? - What makes this a moral question?

"Why is it that we don't have ethical obligations toward rocks?...And if we're more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it's because we think they're exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. Now, the crucial thing to notice here is this is a factual claim: This is something that we could be right or wrong about."

Yes, it is a factual claim, that we do hold this view, and we might be wrong about it (as Gurder points out). Again, evolution can explain why we do - where 'why' here means 'how it came about'. It says nothing about why we should hold this view (or not).

"And we know -- we know -- that there are right and wrong answers to how to move in this space."

Do we? Really? Just because we agree with Harris on most of his scenarios doesn't mean they are moral questions, or questions that are only to do with morals.

"Would adding cholera to the water be a good idea? Probably not." - Probably not? Why not just 'no'? Why not 'yes'? What is that turns this into a moral question?

"There are truths to be known about how human communities flourish, whether or not we understand these truths. And morality relates to these truths." - First sentence, OK. Second? How and why? It relates in the sense that the more we know the more it can help us to construct morals - given we know what our moral goals are. Again, if least harm is a goal then the 'Probably not' answer is probably right - depending on other facts - but we do need to know our moral goals.

So, we must know our morals first, in order to decide what to do with the facts that we uncover. But is it that simple? How do we get to our moral codes in the first place? We observe them in ourselves? We feel them? But sometimes we feel we want to kill, so why do we choose non-murder as a moral code? Our morals often seem to be intended to overcome some of our feelings - our base instincts, or animal instincts. Why is love a moral good and murder a moral bad? Because of the Golden Rule? But what determines the Golden Rule is worth following? Our moral sense? But .... where do we go from here?

More from Harris. He gives some explanations, and then comes to this, "So, what I'm arguing is that value is reducible to facts -- to facts about the conscious experience -- of conscious beings."

This sounds sort of right - we can reduce some values to facts. But which values? All of them? The fact that this organism (me) puts a greater value on raspberry to strawberry can be reducible to the details of science - raspberry releases more pleasure signals (simplification) than strawberry does - I like raspberry more than strawberry. But what's happening in my nervous system when I attribute greater value to love than hate? I mean, it clearly is my nervous system that's driving that valuation (at least as a materialist I think it is). And that nervous system is as it is because of scientific facts - biological and cultural evolution and personal experience - whether we have all pertinent facts or not. What is the difference between these values that makes one a matter of preference and the other a matter of morals or ethics?

I'll leave that for now and get back to Harris.

"Now, let me be clear about what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that science is guaranteed to map this space, or that we will have scientific answers to every conceivable moral question. ..." - See. Caveats - for those who take this talk too literally, or who didn't hear this bit clearly enough. This is a common notion to materialists: just because we can't answer questions yet, or maybe can never answer them (at least in our currently evolved human form), doesn't mean we have the final answer on the matter.

"...But if questions affect human wellbeing then they do have answers, whether or not we can find them. And just admitting this -- just admitting that there are right and wrong answers to the question of how humans flourish -- will change the way we talk about morality, and will change our expectations of human cooperation in the future."

And there it is! There's his moral goal. He's already stated this, but it's easy to let it slip by; and so from there he thinks that science can provide answers. This is the respect in which Harris thinks science can answer moral questions.

The fact that science can't do that for every 'human wellbeing achievement' question, yet, by using current science, is not to say it can't, ever. But even if it were the case that science can never answer every such question, then so what; maybe it can answer more than by not using science.

The remainder of the talk fills in the details. We can argue about some of the examples, and question some of his reasoning, as Chris Anderson does. But the general idea that if we can establish that human wellbeing is in fact a moral goal we value, and if we can establish what constitutes human wellbeing, then science can accumulate the data needed to make the judgement call - maybe.

But for me Harris isn't clear (maybe in his own mind, I don't know) about what we use to judge the value of the science he is talking about, because he doesn't say how science gets us to evaluating our values. He seems to assume one moral value, human wellbeing, as a given. Where's his science that gets us to this and other moral values? Maybe he gets to that in the future. Maybe all we can draw from this is that science can help more than we are accustomed to thinking since Hume gave us is/ought. Can we dispose of is/ought as we dispose of non-overlapping magisteria?

I don't think Harris convinces that it's all an illusion - unless he can tell us elsewhere how he's figured out all the problems of metaethics - see later. It's not illusory that science can't help us with all aspects of morals - as his own caveats attest.

Sean Carroll On Harris...

Sean Carroll criticises Harris here.

Well, I don't think this is quite right with regard to Hume's is/ought. See this post by Alonzo Fyfe. "Prove it.", challenges Alonzo. Of course Alonzo knows that can't be done, and isn't really expecting you to. It's a rhetorical flourish to explain his claim that Hume's argument is one from ignorance. The difficulty, the seeming impossibility, of getting and 'ought' from an 'is' doesn't mean it's not possible.

Carroll says, "Morality and science operate in very different ways." - Well, maybe. Maybe morals and psychology are as different as psychology and physics. Maybe we just don't understand morals too well - we may know them when we see them, but that doesn't mean we understand them. Surely Carroll isn't doing a Stephen Jay Gould on us - do science and morals operate in so different ways?

I'll come back to Carroll where I think he's right.

Where Does That Leave Me?...

Is the problem perhaps that morality itself isn't quite what we think it is - that it is some specific set of facts that determine what we do? This has a similar flavour to questions of what consciousness is, what free-will is - whether they exist at all, or whether they do exist but not as we know it; Jim. Could Harris be right that morals can be reduced to facts?

Maybe morality is, in fact, just another, fact, another data point, an emotional response that we experience. What is it, in fact, to say we have morals? After all, as I conclude that I have no evidence of God (I therefore become an atheist), at all, and so can't derive morals, whatever they are, from him, then God isn't a source - as far as I can tell. Further, as I have no evidence that there are moral absolutes in the universe, but also no evidence that I can know I have access to absolutes in order to judge that, then I can't claim that that's a source, or not.

So if my morals come out of what's left, the only evidence available to me, my biological and cultural evolution, then, in the great scheme of things they are quite arbitrary facts, aren't they? They could have been otherwise differnt facts. If we had inherited a propensity for infanticide of existing children of new mates, say from a common ancestor with some big cats, then any female divorcee might be reluctant to take on a new man - but the infanticide under those circumstances might then not be a moral problem. Maybe we would have come up with a 'moral' means of achieving this - like the debate over the method of death on death row in some US states, the death isn't the moral issue, but the method is. Our morals are only meaningful in our own human contexts.

Maybe, below our feeling that they are not facts, they in fact are - and being this type of fact are open to discovery, and statistical analysis (i.e. democratic voting), the result of which determines what we do. This doesn't mean we have to, as some fear, scan each other constantly to determine our moral values. The human genome project hasn't been quite the horror for insurance access that we worried it might be, because we took some more general principle fact (empathy), constructed a moral code out of it (fairness) and prevented the wholesale use of genetics as a means to insurance discrimination and persecution.

So, before we're too critical of Harris, maybe we need to think what our morals are first - I don't mean what our moral values happen to be. Earlier I distinguished between two possible meanings of 'ought'. But do we fully understand what the moral 'ought' is?

1) Is it (morally)right/wrong to murder?
2) Is it (morally or otherwise)right/wrong to make murder a moral matter?

What do I mean by 'otherwise'? I mean as in 'makes sense', or as in 'category error', or as in 'appropriate'...

If it's wrong to make murder a moral matter, then the first question loses its significance.

3) Is it (morally)right/wrong to like oranges?
4) Is it (morally or otherwise)right/wrong to make the liking of oranges a moral matter?

Q4 is easier to answer than Q2, so Q3 is obviously not a moral issue. Why is Q1 a moral issue? Have we clearly answered Q2?

Exactly why is murder a moral question and the liking of oranges not? You might think to answer 'The Golden Rule', or 'Least Harm' or whatever is your moral code. But why is that a moral code in the first place?

As Gurder says, "Ethics are not easy". Quite right. The whole subject of metaethics is testament to that. Try wading through this, through all the descriptive/normative stuff, and see if you can find a conclusion - you'll certainly come out of it with more questions than you took in.

So, where do I stand?

Yes, ethics is real complex. we're not even sure what it is we're talking about - yet we all sort of know what we're talking about, as if by magic (e.g. as if by God), when really it's just some complex opinion we have that comes about because of our biological and cultural evolution and personal experience and reason - or at least as my biological and cultural evolution and personal experience and reason informs me. All very flaky, tentative, contingent, arbitrary? Too true it is.

Should I be a moral relativist? Well, what an awkward question that is - I'm asking an 'ought' question about my 'oughts'. I can certainly observe a moral relativism - it's plain to see that everyone has a relative opinion about morality, even if there are more common features than differences. There are probably as many nuanced moral views as there are variations in the human genome - and why shouldn't that be so.

But we don't generally implement moral relativism (some post modernists excepted). We do make moral stands - i.e. we do make moral claims - and Harris points out some of these. Even if we can't justify how we come by them or why we hold them. We can't give a moral justification for all our moral views.

That means conflict. I think genital mutilation of baby boys and young girls is morally wrong. I can justify why - Golden rule, least Harm, Freedom to Choose, Self-Determination, etc. - but I can't justify those in turn on moral grounds. I am at odds with people who think those practices are acceptable. I could have, had I lived at the time of the Crusades, gone to war over an issue like this. Now I have to content myself with changing opinions through reason and law - if I, with others, can through reason persuade enough others that these practices should be proscribed through law, then I win that conflict; otherwise I continue to lose. This is what it boils down to.

So, I think Sean Carroll is on firmer ground with this:

"A big part of the temptation to insist that moral judgments are objectively true is that we would like to have justification for arguing against what we see as moral outrages when they occur. But there's no reason why we can't be judgmental and firm in our personal convictions, even if we are honest that those convictions don’t have the same status as objective laws of nature. In the real world, when we disagree with someone else’s moral judgments, we try to persuade them to see things our way; if that fails, we may (as a society) resort to more dramatic measures like throwing them in jail. But our ability to persuade others that they are being immoral is completely unaffected — and indeed, may even be hindered — by pretending that our version of morality is objectively true. In the end, we will always be appealing to their own moral senses, which may or may not coincide with ours."

I've emphasised the bit where I'd add something: by pretending that our version of morality is objectively true, whether they turn out to be objectively true or not, whether Harris is right or not. I'm back to my contingency of knowledge again. Epistemology is a bitch, even for a deity. But that's okay. When it gets very vague - at the limits of ability to figure things out, we just have to make the best of it we can - we do science.

The religious seem to dump this whole problem in God's lap. That doesn't seem good enough to me (do I find that an immoral failure of responsibility?). If I can't figure something out I'd rather admit it, and if I must, I make a choice, based on whatever I've got available. And that consists of my senses and reason. And the best we can do with our senses and reason is to use them as rigorously as possible - science.

So, to some extent I'm with Harris in his project. I don't think he's got it right yet. But give the guy a break, we're still trying to figure out lots of stuff, and philosophers and scientists are bound to make lots of mistakes. But how do we know what are the limits of knowledge; how do we know what we can't know, when it comes to complex issues like this, that are processed in our very peculiar brains, which we don't yet fully understand.

Let's give Harris some rope - see if he ties it all up nicely or hangs himself.