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.

 

Merry Christmas! Again?


You may think that Christmas season is finished.  Not so fast.  January 7 is the Christmas day by the Eastern Orthodox Church calendar, so this is the high time for Christmas celebrations in Eastern Europe — Russia and Ukraine, in particular.  Ever wondered why?  Read on.

The story begins with the Solar System.  Most people know that Earth year is approximately 365 days.  By the age of 4 or 8 years, most people learn that the year is approximately 1/4 day longer than 365 years.  The accrued extra day is added as Februrary 29th every 4 years.  The “long” year is called leap year. Almost every year that can be divided by 4 is a leap year. The calendar accounting for the extra day every 4 years was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC and is, therefore, called Julian.

By the age of 100 or 200, most people learn that the year is approximately 0.008 days shorter than 365 and 1/4.  The accrued missing day is taken away by skipping 3 leap years every 400 years.  Each year that can be divided by 100 is not a leap year unless it can also be divided by 400.  Years 1900 and1800 are not leap years. Year 2000 is a leap year. Of course, most people do not live to the age of 100 or 200 and never learn that most centennial years are not leap.  The calendar accounting for the missing leap years was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and is, therefore, called Gregorian.  They do have to know a thing or two about science, those Popes.

The “approximately” does not end there.  Of course, there are more decimal places in the length of the year calling for more adjustments, but most of the people do not live long enough to notice.

By 1582, the 0.008 days every year have accrued 11 days.  Gregorian calendar corrected Julian calendar by skipping 11 days in October 1582:

Calendar for October 1582 (Spain)

Atheists are not the only people who think that Pope is no authority to them.  Protestants and Americans have not adopted Gregorian calendar until September 1752.  By the time they decided to switch, they had to skip 12 days:

Calendar for September 1752 (United States)

(as if there were United States in 1752).  When I learned UNIX commands in college, I was surprised to find out that UNIX “cal 1752” command produces this:

Screenshot from 2015-01-06 13:34:10
Output of “cal 1752” Linux shell command.

You may be surprised to learn that Eastern Orthodox Church is still using Julian calendar for its holidays!  Now, the difference is 13 days!  So, Orthodox Christmas is on December 25, except that December 25 “old style” falls on January 7 “new style”.  For the same reason, the anniversary of The Great October Socialist Revolutiona major holiday in the Soviet Union, was celebrated on November 7.  When the revolution happened, it was October 25th, but when the Soviet Union converted to Gregorian calendar in 1929, the date moved to November 7th. Julian calendar was still in use until 1930 in the Soviet Union.  In year 2100, another leap year will be skipped adding to the schism separating Eastern Orthodox Christians from the rest of the world.  Starting from year 2101, Orthodox Christmas will move forward another day — to January 8th.  I wonder, how well this change will be received.

In case you wonder, yes, they celebrate the New Year “old style” on January 14 in Eastern Europe.  It’s called “the old new year“.

Negative Capability


Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason Negative capability – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Stumbled upon this quote from John Keats.  Interesting concept.  It describes the ability of the individual to perceive, think, and operate beyond any presupposition of […]

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.

Philosophy is “useful” to science no more than mycology is “useful” to fungi


Second, after David’s review came out, Lawrence took the regrettable tack of lashing out at “moronic philosophers” and the discipline as a whole, rather than taking the high road and sticking to a substantive discussion of the issues. In the Atlantic interview especially, he takes numerous potshots that are just kind of silly. Like most scientists, Lawrence doesn’t get a lot out of the philosophy of science. That’s okay; the point of philosophy is not to be “useful” to science, any more than the point of mycology is to be “useful” to fungi. Philosophers of science aren’t trying to do science, they are trying to understand how science works, and how it should work, and to tease out the logic and standards underlying scientific argumentation, and to situate scientific knowledge within a broader epistemological context, and a bunch of other things that can be perfectly interesting without pretending to be science itself. And if you’re not interested, that’s fine. But trying to undermine the legitimacy of the field through a series of wisecracks is kind of lame, and ultimately anti-intellectual — it represents exactly the kind of unwillingness to engage respectfully with careful scholarship in another discipline that we so rightly deplore when people feel that way about science. It’s a shame when smart people who agree about most important things can’t disagree about some other things without throwing around insults. We should strive to be better than that.

via A Universe from Nothing? : Cosmic Variance.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the relationship between science and philosophy. Some scientists refer to philosophers as “moronic” and believe that philosophers have no authority to define things for scientists.  Others go as far as to say that “philosophy is dead” (i.e. has been replaced by science).

I, personally, like Sean Carroll’s view on relationship between science and philosophy.  IMO, science cannot replace philosophy and science cannot replace religion much like one cannot use trousers instead of a jacket or a screwdriver to drive nails.  This, by the way, applies to relationship between science and religion.  Scientists who make claims about the existence of God, clearly, step out of their scientific shoes.

Edited 1/18/2014.  A quote from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

What’s wrong with this story? Well, for starters it’s internally incoherent. You can’t argue for science making philosophy obsolete without indulging in philosophical arguments. You’re going to need to argue, for example, for a clear criterion for distinguishing between scientific and non-scientific theories of the world. When pressed for an answer to the so-called demarcation problem, scientists almost automatically reach for the notion of “falsifiability” first proposed by Karl Popper. His profession? Philosophy. But whatever criterion you offer, its defense is going to implicate you in philosophy.

Here is another good analogy about relationship between science and philosophy which I read on this site:

Philosophers do conceptual tidying up, among other things, but scientists are the ones making all the sawdust in the workshop, and they need not be so tidy. And no cleaner should tell any professional (other than cleaners) how it ought to be done. Creationists who say, “evolution is not like what Popper said science should be, so it isn’t science” are like the janitor who says that teachers don’t keep their classrooms clean enough, so they aren’t teachers.

Related links:

Time to ditch falsifiability?


230px-Karl_Popper

SelfAwarePatterns made me aware of this essay by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll who expressed opinion that some scientific theories can still be called scientific, even though they are claimed to be unfalsifiable:

Modern physics stretches into realms far removed from everyday experience, and sometimes the connection to experiment becomes tenuous at best. String theory and other approaches to quantum gravity involve phenomena that are likely to manifest themselves only at energies enormously higher than anything we have access to here on Earth. The cosmological multiverse and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics posit other realms that are impossible for us to access directly. Some scientists, leaning on Popper, have suggested that these theories are non-scientific because they are not falsifiable.

The truth is the opposite. Whether or not we can observe them directly, the entities involved in these theories are either real or they are not. Refusing to contemplate their possible existence on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though they might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets.

The falsifiability criterion gestures toward something true and important about science, but it is a blunt instrument in a situation that calls for subtlety and precision. It is better to emphasize two more central features of good scientific theories: they are definite, and they are empirical. By “definite” we simply mean that they say something clear and unambiguous about how reality functions. String theory says that, in certain regions of parameter space, ordinary particles behave as loops or segments of one-dimensional strings. The relevant parameter space might be inaccessible to us, but it is part of the theory that cannot be avoided. In the cosmological multiverse, regions unlike our own are unambiguously there, even if we can’t reach them. This is what distinguishes these theories from the approaches Popper was trying to classify as non-scientific. (Popper himself understood that theories should be falsifiable “in principle,” but that modifier is often forgotten in contemporary discussions.)

Seanmcarroll2

Carroll suggests to replace the requirement of falsifiability for a scientific theory with two requirements: being “definite” and being “empirical“.  IMO, it’s the same as falsifiability.  A few points:

  1. “Unfalsifiable with today’s technology” and “unfalsifiable in principle” are two different matters.  E.g., we may be able to observe some effect of the multiverse on our universe in the future.
  2. “Unfalsified” and “unfalsifiable” are different matters.  Just because a theory has not been proven false, does not mean that it cannot be proven false.
  3. “True” and “useful” are different matters.  Scientific models and theories are created to explain empirical data and make useful predictions.  If a theory does not do that, it can still be scientific, but it is rejected as useless (e.g. aether theories)  The concepts of electron or radio wave are not “true” or “false”.  The fact that we cannot “see” them does not seem to embarrass any scientist.  We imagine electrons to be particles and it helps to explain empirical data.  But electrons are not “particles” per se.  We imagine electrons to be waves and it helps to explain empirical data, but electrons are not exactly like the waves on the surface of an ocean, for example.   As long as these models and visualizations help explain empirical data, these models are empirical and falsifiable because if they fail to explain empirical data, they will be falsified.
  4. The question “can a theory be proven false?” is ambiguous.  It can mean two different things: (1) “Is the theory likely to be false?” or (2) “Can the theory be proven false, in principe?”  These questions are not to be confused.  E.g. Evolution appears to be falsifiable because, if we found human remains predating dinosaur fossils, evolution would be proven false, but it’s unlikely we ever will.  “The universe appeared from nothing” appears to be unfalsifiable theory because I cannot imagine what evidence of “nothing” might look like, even in theory.  I don’t even know what “nothing” is.  I don’t even know if I can say “nothing is” or “was“.

Regarding high energies, we don’t necessarily need to “have access” to them on Earth (e.g. build huge particle colliders).  We can observe phenomena happening at these high energies in the space.

Multiverse is just a concept or a model that is supposed to explain certain empirical data.  It’s completely possible to use this model to predict phenomena that we can observe.  If these predictions prove to be incorrect, we can say that we have falsified the multiverse as a useful scientific theory.  I think, the falsifiability principle still stands.  What do you think?

See also: “Evolution and Philosophy: Is Evolution Science?”

Update 1/21/2014: This video explains the different concepts of “multiverses” mentioning that there <em>can</em> be experimental evidence of them, in principle.  So, these hypotheses are not unfalsifiable.