Can Science Answer Moral Questions?


This was the question of Sam Harris’s TED talk which was a sales pitch for his book “The Moral Landscape“.  I think science cannot answer moral questions.  Science can help creating a cure for cancer or design a better gas chamber with equal efficiency.  It is utterly incapable of telling if one is more ethical than the other.  There is no litmus test for morality.

But…

Science is great at finding methods for making something.  Good decisions are not an exception.  Science can shed the light on how to make better decisions as this excellent video by Mariano Sigman and Dan Ariely shows.  It cannot tell what these decisions are.

Notice the difference between the two videos.  The second video is focused on the method.  It does not comment on the morality of a particular decision and does not mention religion or any social group at all.  Harris’s video, to the contrary, is full of anti-religious (Islamophobic, in particular) examples, and appeals to emotions rather than intellect while being completely unsound intellectually.  As a sales pitch, it worked great creating controversy and sparking heated discussions among scientists, philosophers, and religious people.  But it did nothing to make this world better.

 

My experience with religion: Part 3


As I described earlier, I grew up as an atheist, I described my early experiences with religion, and why I finally chose to believe in God.  I’d like to reflect on some interesting side-effects.

Shortly after I chose to believe in God, I came across the Atheist Experience video podcast.  I have been an atheist for the most of my life.  It wasn’t a big deal for me.  I did not have to “break the spell”, break relationships with my family or face judgment from my friends for being an atheist.  I did not realize that people could be very passionate about their atheism and even confrontational with believers.  That was an interesting discovery for me.

To be honest, I did not like the tone of the show.  The hosts of the show ridiculed religion, religious beliefs, and religious callers.  There was a general overtone of arrogance and superiority.  I visited a few atheist forums.  What I saw there was even more shocking.  Once I identified myself as a believer, I was treated with scorn and contempt.  For some reason, people in these forums were prepared to refute my “stupid claims” even though I did not make any.  I was assumed to be a right-wing conservative who rejects evolution and supports YEC.  Now I realize that this, perhaps, was the kind of believers these people were used to deal with.  But I found it a bit narrow-minded for people who claimed to be “rational” to treat all believers according to their own stereotype.   I was bombarded with dogmatic cliche statements which sounded rational on their face, but did not stand a simple analysis.  For instance,

  • “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” (Hitchens)
  • Burden of proof principle (even though I did not make any statements)
  • “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (“Clifford’s Credo”)

I thought about these statements.  I read Clifford’s essay “Ethics of Belief” and William James’s response “The Will to Believe”.  I have a notebook full of notes on these essays which I hope to share some time later.  I read about epistemology, empiricism, solipsism, rationalism.  I read about cognitive dissonance.  I read Karl Popper to understand scientific method.  I thought I may be making a huge mistake believing in God.  But I concluded that there are as many reasons to believe in God as reasons not to believe in God.   The question of God’s existence is not scientific because it is unfalsifiable.  People who know how science works, know this.  People who are confused about science, try to present “evidence” for God or claim that science “proves” that God does not exist.  Some people know that existence of God is not a scientific question, but deliberately require “evidence” from naive believers just to get them entangled in their own arguments.  It was a good experience.  Most notably, I learned what not to say in online discussions.  I tried to understand why we believe, how we make decisions in uncertain situations.  I concluded that all people have unjustified beliefs.  So, the lack of evidence for God is not a sufficient reason to reject belief in God.  After a lot of thought, I did not find any epistemological reasons to reject belief in God.

Another hard claim I was confronted with was the claim that “religion causes harm”.  I was presented with countless historical facts of religious wars, crusades, witch-burning, Inquisition, antisemitism, Holocaust, honor killings, acts of terrorism, allegedly caused by religious beliefs.  In other words, I was confronted with moral reasons to reject belief in God.  I think, being skeptical about my prior beliefs is a good habit.  But for me, it has a different meaning than for most atheists in those forums: I have to be skeptical about atheism, not religion.  That religion is “opium for the masses”, I know quite well from my Soviet schooling.  After reading about causality, I have concluded that religion is not the cause of the atrocities associated with it.  So, there are no sufficient moral reasons to reject belief in God.  I think, religion is very powerful.  And, as any power, it has many dangers.  But these dangers can be avoided and are not sufficient to disregard the power of religion which exists independently of what we think of it.   I’m going to write about it soon.

I was told that science tells us where morality comes from and that it can help us answer moral questions.  At that time, I have not heard of Sam Harris, but a short internet search lead me to this pivotal TED talk where Harris tried to suggest that science can help us solve moral issues.  Essentially, it was a promotion of Harris’s book “The Moral Landscape” which was going to be published at that time.  It was the first TED talk I watched.  Something did not sound right in this talk.  I smelled too much agenda.  It lead me to discover Sean Carroll’s response to Sam Harris which lead me to read Hume on the topics of beliefs, empiricism, “ought vs. is”, etc.  Watching TED videos and participating in TED online discussions opened a new chapter in my learning.  TED folks are a lot more diverse and open-minded than folks from atheist forums.  I found a lot more understanding there.  A lot of topics discussed are thought-provoking. I spent a lot of time participating in TED discussions.  These days however,  I find too many Utopian ideas discussed in TED conversations and too many idealistic discussions.

In atheist forums, I was also confronted with scientific theories of the origins of the universe and with claims that the universe started from “nothing”, according to the laws of physics.  And that the whole thing was started by a random fluctuation (of what?).  There is so much nonsense in this belief that it may take a few posts to cover them.  I even have heard that “there was time when there was no time” (regarding the “time” prior to the big bang).  That was a quote from an atheist forum that I thought is worth remembering.  I won’t go too far here as Sean Carroll has done a fairly good job already.  By Lawernce Krauss’s own admission, the title of his book “A Universe from Nothing” is only intended to stir up a controversy and get people thinking and talking about it.  It’s the same tactics Sam Harris employs with his claims regarding science and morality, free will, etc. which deliberately contradict centuries of philosophical thought on these issues.  This tactic may stimulate thought on these topics, but I find it a bit cheap and self-promoting.  It sells well, but it’s alike the cheap “popularity” gained by Internet forum trolls and Miley Cyrus antics.

So, science fanatics, sorry.  Science does not tell us how the universe came about and does not help much to answer moral questions.  Which, again, leaves me with freedom to believe what I want to believe.  The result of this investigation was reading a few books by Stephen Hawkins and Roger Penrose, articles by Andrei Linde and Alex Vilenkin, lectures on cosmology and vacuum physics which was a fun refreshment of my college education in physics.

All in all, my experience with religion is very positive.  I learned a lot about myself, science, politics, and philosophy with its many branches — epistemology, ethics, etc.   It’s been an interesting journey which I hope to continue.

What does determinism determine?


There is a lot of discussion whether free will is possible in the world where all events are determined by physical laws.   Let’s stop and meditate on the word determined.  What does it mean?  It seems to mean that if we knew the current state of a system with coordinates and momenta of all atoms and molecules, we should be able to know also the state of the system in n seconds from now. There are too many ifs here, don’t you think? First of all, the system must be closed, i.e. confined to itself and isolated from external influences. This implies not only that the system cannot exchange particles with the outside world, but also energy (heat, electromagnetic radiation, or whatever other forms of energy there might be). That’s quite impossible. We might not even be aware of all forms of energy out there considering the “dark matter/dark energy” problem. We also must know the state of each and every atom in this closed system. One atom in the system or coming from outside with unknown state can throw all determinism out of the window.

Just look at the image above.   Can we practically determine the position of every ball after the cue ball hits the pyramid?  The movement of every ball is strictly determined by the Newton’s laws.  What seems to be the problem?  The problem is that we do not know the exact trajectory of the cue ball, where it hits the pyramid.  We do not know the exact alignment of the balls in the pyramid (I am not talking about any quantum principles here).  We do not know how every fiber of the table cloth and every microscopic groove in the table will affect the trajectory of every ball.  We don’t know if all balls are exactly spherical, whether their mass is equally distributed, how many scratches and imperfections they have.  We don’t know if the table is leveled or tilted to one side.  So, OK.  Trajectories of the balls are strictly determined by the Newton’s laws (if we ignore relativistic effects).  That’s what makes this game possible.  But how much is anything “determined”?

And that was a fairly idealistic environment.  Reality usually looks more like this, except the balls are in Brownian motion.

Determinists say that every event is caused by another event.  Let’s stop and meditate on the word caused. What do we mean by that?  Causality is nothing more than another mental construct.  It’s a way to describe relationship between events. In certain cases, when one event follows another event, we say that event 1 caused event 2. But it’s simply a special kind of connection between events.  Which we construct in our mind.  The relationship needs to follow certain rules outlined by Hume (e.g. event 1 must happen prior to event 2, event 2 must always follow event 1, etc. — Hume lists 8 attributes of causality) After spending the last 15 years of my career analyzing “failure root cause” of semiconductor circuits, I realized that that there is no such thing as “the root cause”.  Finding “the root cause” comes down to finding practical and reliable ways of achieving desired results.  Some ways are better than others and some results are more desirable than others.  When a car “accident” happens, we can say that it was caused by distracted driving, slippery road, poor visibility, condition of the car, the tree standing in the way, etc. All of those can be considered as causes of the accident. But there is no magic that determines “THE ROOT CAUSE”.  It’s possible to say that the tree caused the accident because if the tree were not there, the accident would not have happened.  We can even blame evolution that “caused” the tree to exist.  But it does not make any practical sense.  I know the cause of all plane crashes — gravity.  Is this the cause people look for?

car_crash_1

 

We also seem to have freedom to pick and choose the causes of events:

“It all comes,” said Pooh crossly, “of not having front doors big enough.” “It all comes,” said Rabbit sternly, “of eating too much.”

To complicate the matters, an observer is a part of the observed system and inevitably affects the system’s behavior.  Think of turning on the light to see what’s going on in the dark room.  What will you see?  You will see what’s going on in the room right after you turned on the light, not what had been going on in the dark.  In some cases observer effect can be neglected, in some cases, not.  So, the very act of inquiry into natural causes of events adds an element of free will to these events.  Some things seem to be there just because we look.  There is a Russian proverb “If I knew where I fall, I would put some straw there”.    Knowing that an event will happen can change that event.

Now, let’s stop and meditate on the words physical laws. What are they?  Aren’t they also mental constructs allowing us to describe the world and make useful predictions?  Most physical laws operate within a certain idealistic model of the world and ignore “second-order” effects.  What constitutes a “second-order” effect depends on the application.  We can ignore relativistic inaccuracies of Newton’s laws when we play billiards, but when we design a GPS system, we have to take them into account.  When we launch a satellite, we account for the mass of the Earth, perhaps, the Moon, perhaps the Sun.  How about the effects of the gravity pull coming from the billions of distant galaxies?  Probably, not so important.  But second-order effects do exist even if we choose to ignore them.  And we never know when they become too large to ignore.  We also cannot pretend that we know all physical laws.  There are a few that we happen to know.  But I’m certain that there are quite a few of them that we are not even aware of.  Determinism seems to be just another such idealistic model of the world which only makes sense for certain applications, but not others.

Anything left from determinism that has not been reduced to absurdity yet?  Good luck with determinism, Mr. Harris and Mr. Coyne.

See also:

Do we have free will?


Daniel Dennett has recently published a detailed response to Sam Harris’s book “Free Will”.  As one can see from the reviews, the book was received with enthusiasm by many scientists.  E.g. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, also chooses the point of view that free will does not exist.  I like how engineer Jacque Fresco explains this idea in the first part of this video (the second part where he mentions how a person may decide to borrow a weapon to protect himself from a wild animal despite being preconditioned by society that stealing is unacceptable seems somewhat inconsistent which is OK considering that, according to himself, he did not choose what to think or what to say).

The popularity of incompatibilism (the notion that deterministic laws of nature are incompatible with free will) among scientists and engineers is not surprising.  It is not a new idea and has been known for many centuries as shown in  this review on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy web site.  All good and well… But…

We still make choices, don’t we?  What do you say, yes or no?  How come?

I tend to agree with Dennett on this issue who espouses compatibilism, the notion that we can consider that free will exists for our practical purposes despite the determinism of laws of nature.  Although Dennett has a few good explanations of his view, I’d like to offer my own.

If we accept that every event is strictly determined by the laws of physics and all circumstances of that event, we must reject also the concept of probability.  There is no likelihood of occurrence of any event because, according to determinism, there is certainty whether and how this event will happen.  Nevertheless, probability is one of the most important concepts in science and everyday decision making.  Why?  I think, it has to do with predictability.  Determinism implies that all events are predictable in principle, if we know all circumstances leading to this event.  However, in practice, we never know all circumstances.  Therefore, we estimate probabilities.  This distinction between in practice and in principle also seems to be the source of confusion about falsifiability of scientific theories.

Let me ask you to name a random integer number between 1 and 10.  Can you do that?  I bet you can.  Now, that you picked a number, it’s not random for you any more — you know what it is.  But for me, the number is still random because I don’t know what number you have picked.  I can still talk about probability of what the number is, whereas for you there is no probability, there is certainty.

Once a lottery has been drawn, there is no longer any uncertainty regarding what the winning numbers are.  The probability of the numbers being what they are is 1.  Probability of the outcome of the lottery only makes sense before the lottery is drawn or if we do not know the results of the drawing.

Imagine a deck of cards face down on the table.  When I take a card from the top of the deck, what is the probability of the card being queen of hearts?  1/52, right?  Now imagine a deck of cards face up on the table with the top card being jack of spades.  What’s the probability of the card being queen of hearts now?  Now it’s zero.  Why?  Because we know it’s not queen of hearts.  But why does it matter whether the deck is face up or face down?  Isn’t the top card what it is regardless of what we think about it?  Why is it reasonable to talk about probability in the first case and unreasonable in the second case?

Perhaps, that’s enough of examples.  In summary, I think, probability, free will, and determinism are  ways to describe the world in a similar way as color is a way to describe the length of electromagnetic waves hitting our eyes (Dennett’s analogy).  In a similar way, imagining that electron is a wave or a particle or forms a cloud is a way to describe certain properties of electron.  But in reality, electron is neither like a wave in the ocean, nor like a cloud in the sky at all.  Thinking that an electron is a particle is incompatible with thinking that an electron is a wave.  Yet, scientists manage to use both models successfully, without contradiction.

It’s important to consider contexts in which concepts are meaningful.  Concepts lose meaning if they are used in a wrong context.  E.g., abbreviation “CD” can mean “compact disc” if we talk about audio records, “certificate of deposit” if we talk about banking, “critical dimension” if we talk about semiconductor processing.  In a similar way, the concept of “free will” is meaningful in most contexts of every day life, but not so in some specific contexts.  “Free will” and “probability” are all mere concepts.  If we argue that they do not exist, we might as well dismiss all other concepts and ideas we may have.

So, although, what I do is determined, I don’t know it, and it gives me the freedom of choice…  Or an illusion of freedom of choice which is as good as freedom of choice for all practical purposes.  There is no difference between free will and the illusion of free will just like there is no difference between real intelligence and fake intelligence.

Related links

 

Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris


Search your mind, or pay attention to the conversations you have with other people, and you will discover that there are no real boundaries between science and philosophy—or between those disciplines and any other that attempts to make valid claims about the world on the basis of evidence and logic. When such claims and their methods of verification admit of experiment and/or mathematical description, we tend to say that our concerns are “scientific”; when they relate to matters more abstract, or to the consistency of our thinking itself, we often say that we are being “philosophical”; when we merely want to know how people behaved in the past, we dub our interests “historical” or “journalistic”; and when a person’s commitment to evidence and logic grows dangerously thin or simply snaps under the burden of fear, wishful thinking, tribalism, or ecstasy, we recognize that he is being “religious.”

via Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris.

Harris seems to rant that people interpret science too narrowly.   While at it, he reduces religion to a mere lack of commitment to evidence and logic, wishful thinking, tribalism, extacy, and inability to think coherently under fear.  But these are not defining attributes of religiosity.  Many people exhibit these attributes, religious or not (as we will see below).  Mr. Harris seems to attack a “straw man”.  It’s very unlikely that Harris is unfamiliar with this common fallacy implying that he uses it deliberately.  Twisting definitions to conform to one’s beliefs seems to be the very practice Sam Harris appears to criticize.

Confusion on this point has spawned many strange ideas about the nature of human knowledge and the limits of “science.” People who fear the encroachment of the scientific attitude—especially those who insist upon the dignity of believing in one or another Iron Age god—will often make derogatory use of words such as materialism, neo-Darwinism, and reductionism, as if those doctrines had some necessary connection to science itself.
This is the first time I hear that “materialism”, “neo-Darwinism”, and “reductionism” are “derogatory terms”.  Why does anybody need to be insulted when things are called what they are?
I, personally, do fear the encroachment of science into politics and morality, but not for religious reasons.  I am fairly convinced that moral rules cannot be established by scientific experiment, in principle.  Such view would be in gross contradiction with Harris’ own views.  If we admit that there are absolute, objective, undeniable, universal moral values, then we must admit that the physical universe has a purpose and can impose moral judgement on humans.  Essentially, such belief is belief in a weird “scientific” version of God and give scientists the status of high priests to declare moral values as “scientific truths proven with evidence”.
If we allow morality to be established by scientific experiment, we can easily demonstrate that killing sick and elderly eliminates the need and expenses for healthcare and social benefits, thus making society much healthier and wealthier (of course, if we agree that health and wealth constitute “wellbeing”, otherwise we will need to find scientific evidence that they do).
What’s the evidence for “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…”?  It’s an obvious falsity.  The evidence shows that some men are tall and some are short, some are black  and some are white, some are wise and some believe that science can prove moral values.
Regarding reductionism:
If there were evidence that complex systems produced phenomena that cannot be understood in terms of their constituent parts, it would be possible to be a neo-Darwinist without being a reductionist. For all practical purposes, that is where most scientists find themselves, because every branch of science beyond physics must resort to concepts that cannot be understood merely in terms of particles and fields. Many of us have had “philosophical” debates about what to make of this explanatory impasse. Does the fact that we cannot predict the behavior of chickens or fledgling democracies on the basis of quantum mechanics mean that those higher-level phenomena are something other than their underlying physics? I would vote “no” here, but that doesn’t mean I envision a time when we will use only the nouns and verbs of physics to describe the world.

Perhaps, trying and failing to explain large systems based on properties of constituents can be construed as evidence that reductionism is not all-powerful.  It may be useful in some cases, but not in others.  Why not expand scientific method beyond reductionism instead of trying to fit square pegs into round holes?

Can quantum mechanics predict processes in society?  May be, having some facts and examples would be beneficial to establish a belief that quantum mechanics can predict fledging democracies lest we engage in “wishful thinking” and show “lack of commitment to evidence”.  A person adhering to “the highest standards of logic and evidence” might also avoid using arguments from ignorance in his reasoning.

The remedy for all this confusion is simple: We must abandon the idea that science is distinct from the rest of human rationality.
In other words, we need to abandon the  definition of science and opt for some fuzzy “highest standards of logic and reasoning” whatever it might mean.  One can use logic to explain something other than logic.  Using logic to explain logic and define the “highest standards of logic” seems to include circular reasoning and is, therefore, unreasonable.  There is a similar problem with being conscious of one’s own consciousness and thinking about one’s own thoughts.  But it’s a fine philosophical point which seems to escape the grasp of Mr. Harris’s titanic intellect.
It occurs to me that “highest standards” would require some definition.  Otherwise, it’s hard to “adhere” to them.  Usually, standards benefit from being specific.  “Highest standards” are, usually, “strict standards”, i.e. narrowly defined.
When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.