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Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011 | ISSN 1556-5696

eSkeptic: the email newsletter of the Skeptics Society

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Edward Tufte Takes His Course on the Road

WE WANT TO ALERT EVERYONE that one of the most remarkable courses ever devised on data and information, taught by the man the New York Times called “The Leonardo da Vinci of data,” Edward Tufte, who is taking his one-day course on the road to cities around the United States, including:

  • San Diego, CA (February 7, 2011)
  • Los Angeles, CA (February 8 & 9, 2011)
  • Phoenix, AZ (February 11, 2011)
  • Boston, MA (February 28, March 1 & 2, 2011)
  • Dallas, TX (April 4, 2011)
  • Austin, TX (April 6, 2011)
  • Houston, TX (April 8, 2011)
  • Arlington, VA (May 16, 17, 18, 2011)
Topics covered in this one-day course
  • fundamental strategies of analytical design
  • evaluating evidence used in presentations
  • statistical data: tables, graphics, and semi-graphics
  • business, scientific, research, and financial presentations
  • complexity and clarity
  • effective presentations: on paper and in person
  • interface design
  • use of PowerPoint, video, overheads, and handouts
  • multi-media, internet, and websites
  • credibility of presentations
  • animation and scientific visualizations
  • many practical examples

The fee for the one-day course is $380 per person. This fee includes all four books, Visual Explanations, Envisioning Information, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and Beautiful Evidence. Groups of 10 or more, registering simultaneously, receive a 20% discount. The fee for full-time students not currently employed is $200; fax or mail a copy of your current student ID, phone number of school registrar who can verify your student status, and our course registration form. There are no other discounts.

To register, call 1-800-822-2454 or 1-203-250-7007 or

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Next Lectures at Caltech

A Special Dual Event
How Old is the Universe? and
The Shape of Inner Space

with Dr. David Weintraub
and Dr. Shing-Tung Yau
Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

How Old is the Universe?

IT’S ALL VERY WELL FOR ASTRONOMERS to say that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, but how do they know? Vanderbilt University astronomer David Weintraub explains it all for astronomy buffs in an enthusiastic way. He starts with how scientists first determined the age of the solar system — about 4.5 billion years — by isotope dating the oldest known rocks: lunar rocks brought back by astronauts, and meteorites that have collided with Earth. He then shows how stellar life cycles indicate an age of about 13 billion years. Refining that number requires measuring things we can’t even see, such as dark energy and dark matter. Weintraub explains various dating approaches and illustrates the work of astronomers to find the answer to one of the most basic questions about our universe. Order the book on which this lecture is based from Amazon.com.

The Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the
Universe’s Hidden Dimensions

String theory describes one of the smallest things you can possibly imagine — six-dimensional geometric spaces that may be more than a trillion times smaller than an electron — that could be one of the defining features of our universe. Dr. Yau tells the story of those spaces, which physicists have dubbed “Calabi-Yau manifolds,” and how Dr. Yau managed to prove the existence, mathematically, of those spaces, despite the fact that he had originally set out to prove that such spaces could not possibly exist. Order the book on which this lecture is based from Amazon.com.

Ticket information

Tickets are first come first served at the door. Seating is limited. $8 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $10 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.


Mystery Photo

Last Week’s Mystery Photo is of Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard University’s fossil collection. For this week’s Mystery Photo (below), identify the man on the left, the location of the photo, and what we are doing with all those stuffed bears (and one penguin)?

Mystery Photo

click to enlarge image (274 kb, 1000 px wide)


About this week’s feature article
The Moral Landscape (book cover)

In this week’s eSkeptic Massimo Pigliucci reviews Sam Harris’ latest book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Because it is somewhat critical of Harris’s thesis that science can determine human values, you may wish to also read Michael Shermer’s more positive column in Scientific American on the subject (which he too has written extensively about in his own book, The Science of Good and Evil). Finally, read Harris’ extended response to critics in the Huffington Post.

Massimo Pigliucci is a philosopher at the City University of New York-Lehman College in New York and a regular columnist for Skeptical Inquirer and Philosophy Now. His books include: Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk and Evolution — the Extended Synthesis.

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Science and the Is/Ought Problem

by Massimo Pigliucci

In 1739 the great Scottish philosopher and skeptic David Hume outlined in his Treatise of Human Nature the problem of mixing the way something is with the way something ought to be:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

What Sam Harris wishes to do in his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, is to mount a science-based challenge to Hume’s famous separation of facts from values. For Harris, values are facts, and as such they are amenable to scientific inquiry. I think he is spectacularly wrong.

Let me first begin by making clear that there is much about which Harris and I agree. We are both moral realists, i.e. we believe that moral questions do have non-arbitrary answers, though our realism is, as will be clear in a moment, of a very different nature. We both agree that religion has absolutely nothing to do with morality, though I don’t think of it as “the root of all evil” either, to use Richard Dawkins’ phrase, which Harris seems to endorse with glee throughout this (and his previous) book. Lastly, as an obvious corollary of our moral realism, both Harris and I think that moral relativism is a silly notion, and that it is in fact downright pernicious in its effects on individuals and society.

Here is where the two of us disagree: I do not think that science amounts to the sum total of rational inquiry (a position often referred to as scientism), which he seems to assume. I do think that science should inform the specifics of our ethical discussions, and hence is in an important sense pertinent to ethics, but I maintain that ethical questions are inherently philosophical in nature, not scientific. Ignoring this distinction, I think, does a disservice to both science and philosophy. Finally, as a corollary of my rejection of scientism above, I do think that there are significant differences between science and philosophy, even though of course the demarcation line between the two is far from being sharp. Indeed, I think that a combination of these two disciplines — which used to be called “scientia” (knowledge in the broadest possible sense) — is our best hope for a more rational and compassionate humanity.

Before I get to the meat, let me point out that I think Harris undermines his own project in two endnotes tucked in at the back of his book. In the second note to the Introduction, he acknowledges that he “do[es] not intend to make a hard distinction between ‘science’ and other intellectual contexts in which we discuss ‘facts.’” But wait a minute! If that is the case, if we can define “science” as any type of rational-empirical inquiry into “facts” (the scare quotes are his) then we are talking about something that is not at all what most readers are likely to understand when they pick up a book with a subtitle that says “How Science Can Determine Human Values” (my italics). One can reasonably smell a bait and switch here. Second, in the first footnote to chapter 1, Harris says: “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” That’s it? The whole of the only field other than religion that has ever dealt with ethics is dismissed because Sam Harris finds it boring? Is that a fact or a value judgment, I wonder?

Harris wants to deliver moral decision making to science because he wants to defeat the evil (if oddly paired) twins of religious fanaticism and moral relativism. Despite the fact that I think he grossly overestimates the pervasiveness of the latter, we are together on this. Except of course that the best arguments against both positions are philosophical, not scientific. The most convincing reason why gods cannot possibly have anything to do with morality was presented 24 centuries ago by Plato, in his Euthyphro dialogue (which goes, predictably, entirely unmentioned in The Moral Landscape). In this dialogue, Plato’s favorite protagonist Socrates asks a young man named Euthyphro the following question: “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?” That is, does God embrace moral principles naturally occurring and external to Him because they are sound (“holy”) or are these moral principles sound because He created them. It cannot be both.

Moral relativism too has been the focus of sustained and devastating attack in philosophy, for instance by thinkers such as Peter Singer and Simon Blackburn, and this is thanks to the large metaethical literature that Harris finds so increases the degree of boredom in the universe.

Harris’ chief claim throughout the book is that moral judgments are a kind of fact, and that as such they are amenable to scientific inquiry. First of all, the second statement does not at all follow from the first. Surely we can agree that the properties of triangles in Euclidean geometry are “facts,” in the sense that nobody who understands Euclidean geometry can opine that the sum of the angles in a triangle is not 180° and get away with it. But we do not use science, or any kind of empirical evidence at all, to arrive at agreement about such facts. Morality, of course, is not mathematics, but it is easy to show that science only informs, doesn’t determine, our ethical choices. Consider abortion. If we agree, for the sake of argument, that abortion is morally permissible before the fetus can feel any pain, then it is a matter for science to give us the best empirical estimate of when approximately that happens during human development. But notice that science cannot make us agree on whether that particular criterion (pain) is moral or not. We need to argue for it in some other way.

How? A friend of mine — who incidentally is usually very skeptical of philosophical arguments — has recently told me of a conversation she often has about vegetarianism, a conversation that is both a perfect example of applied ethical philosophy and a good illustration of why Harris is off the mark with his project. When one of her acquaintances questions the moral grounds of her vegetarian commitment, she replies by asking whether that person endorses bestiality. Taken aback, the interlocutor’s first reaction often invokes some sort of “yuck factor,” only to realize that this would be emotivism (one of the words that Harris thinks is incredibly boring), i.e., it doesn’t amount to a rational reason. The second line of defense, typically, is something like “bestiality forces the animal to comply with an action it has not given consent to.” My friend then smiles, smelling the philosophical kill now at hand. “But surely you will agree that eating an animal is also an action that we are forcing upon it without consent!” QED, the opponent has been forced — by the strength of the logical argument — to admit to a serious inconsistency in his thinking. Now he has a limited number of options available: become a vegetarian, grudgingly agree that bestiality is morally defensible, or look for another argument that distinguishes bestiality from meat eating. Notice that in all of this, no science of human emotions or animal husbandry was required, besides a basic knowledge of what kinds of things animals are.

Harris, I suspect, would not be content with this. He wants science — and particularly neuroscience (which just happens to be his own specialty) — to help us out of our moral quandaries. But the reader will wait in vain throughout the book to find a single example of new moral insights that science provides us. Harris tells us that genital mutilation of young girls is wrong. I agree, but certainly we have no need of fMRI scans to tell us why: the fact that certain regions of the brain are involved in pain and suffering, and that we might be able to measure exactly the degree of those emotions doesn’t add anything at all to the conclusion that genital mutilation is wrong because it violates an individual’s right to physical integrity and to avoid pain unless absolutely necessary (e.g., during a surgical operation to save her life, if no anesthetic is available).

Indeed, Harris’ insistence on neurobiology becomes at times positively creepy, as in the section where he seems to relish the prospect of a neuro-scanning technology that will be able to tell us if anyone is lying, opening the prospect of a world where government (and corporations) will be able to enforce no-lie zones upon us. He writes: “Thereafter, civilized men and women might share a common presumption: that whenever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored. … Many of us might no more feel deprived of the freedom to lie during a job interview or at a press conference than we currently feel deprived of the freedom to remove our pants in the supermarket.” If these sentences do not conjure the specter of a really, really scary Big Brother in your mind, I suggest you get your own brain scanned for signs of sociopathology (or watch a good episode of Babylon 5).

At several points in the book Harris seems to think that neurobiology will be so important for ethics that we will be able to tell whether people are happy by scanning them and make sure their pleasure centers are activated. He goes so far as telling us that scientific research shows that we are wrong about what makes us happy, and that it is conceivable that “evil” (quite a loaded term, for a book that shies away from philosophy) might turn out to be one of many paths to happiness — meaning the stimulation of certain neural pathways in our brains. Besides the obvious point that if what we want to do is stimulate our brains so that we feel perennially happy, all we need are appropriate drugs to be injected into our veins while we sit in a pod in perfectly imbecilic contentment, these are all excellent observations that show that science cannot answer moral questions. As Harris points out, for instance, research shows that people become less happy when they have children. What does this fact about human behavior have to do with ethical decisions concerning whether and when to have children?

Moreover, Harris entirely evades philosophical criticism of his positions, on the simple ground that he finds metaethics “boring.” But he is a self-professed consequentialist — a philosophical stance close to utilitarianism — who simply ducks any discussion of the implicatons of that a priori choice, which informs his entire view of what counts for morality, happiness, well-being and so forth. He seems unaware of (or doesn’t care about) the serious philosophical objections that have been raised against consequentialism, and even less so of the various counter-moves in logical space (some more convincing than others) that consequentialists have made to defend their position. This ignorance is not bliss, and it is the high price the reader pays for the crucial evasive maneuvers that Harris sneaks into the footnotes I mentioned at the beginning.


Skeptical perspectives on science, morality and religion…
cover The Science of Good & Evil
by Michael Shermer (paperback $17)

Shermer applies the latest findings of science to offer an original model of the bio-cultural evolution of morality and a new theory of provisional ethics that challenges the reader to confront these timeless issues from a new perspective. He calls for a national debate on the origins of morality, the basis of moral principles, and the need for a more universal and tolerant ethic; an ethic that will insure the well-being and survival of all members of the species, and of all species. READ more and order the book.

cover The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins (paperback $15.95)

This is Dawkins’ most important book to date, his definitive statement on the God question, the origins of morality and religion, the best arguments for and against God’s existence, the dangers of religious extremism, and why science offers the best hope for humanity. READ more and order the book.

cover Living Without Religion
by Paul Kurtz (paperback $14)

One of America’s foremost expositors of humanist philosophy, Paul Kurtz shows how we can live the good life filled with morality, commitment, and dedication, without having to depend on the existence of a higher being. Drawing upon the disciplines of the sciences, philosophy, and ethics, Kurtz also offers concrete recommendations for the development of the humanism of the future. READ more and order the book.


Follow Michael Shermer on Twitter, Facebook, and Skepticblog
Stephen Hawking in his computer chair

NEW ON SKEPTICBLOG.ORG
The Celebrity of Science
Comes to Caltech

On Tuesday, January 18, 2011, physicist, cosmologist, writer, and science celebrity Stephen Hawking spoke in Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium on the subject of “My Brief History,” an autobiographical journey through the life of one of the most famous scientists in history. Tickets were in such high demand that I had to go as a member of the press, writing for Scientific American, Skeptic, eSkeptic, and Skeptic.com, and even then it wasn’t clear I was getting in to actually hear the lecture…

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43 Comments »

43 Comments

  1. Roy Niles says:

    That review by Pigliucci was as petty a bit of commentary as I’ve seen from a so-called expert on the subject that would supposedly qualify him to publish an opinion. The substance of his remarks: “The book irritates me in several places and if you are anything like me, and are easily thrown off by an apparent non sequitur here and there, you mustn’t read this book!” Hopefully there are so few like him that the book will get the readership it deserves. The good parts far outweigh those that somehow don’t meet the reviewer’s somewhat arcane sense of philosophical propriety.

    • Adriana says:

      This review by Roy Niles was as petty and meaningless a bit of commentary as I’ve seen anywhere.
      The substance of his remarks: “I will not engage with Pigliucci’s critique of Harris’ avoidance of the Is/Ought Problem because I have no answer for it. Instead I will ignore Pigliucci’s trenchant criticisms, and pretend he didn’t make any. Bad Pigliucci, you didn’t make any criticisms”

      • Roy Niles says:

        Except it turns out that Harris didn’t avoid the problem, he tackled it head on, and look ma, no problem after all. But then again, you’re no Ophelia.

        • Adrianna says:

          Wow, what a content-less reply. He of course did not solve the Is/Ought problem as it is insoluble, of course if you disagree feel free to quote him. Secondly, yes Ophelia are I are both women, do you have any other reason to compare us? Or do you feel that is a good reason to mention her. Women are all alike after all?

  2. Harriet Hall says:

    I reviewed the book more favorably on the Science-Based Medicine blog at
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=7465.

  3. smebird says:

    The argument about vegetarianism really bothers me, because I cannot imagine two people in the 1200s accepting that an animal is capable of conscious consent or that consent even matters between any two conscious beings. These are relatively modern notions, both of which were influenced by science. Animal experimentation since the 1950s and a long and torturous path of political experimentation have left us with a shared understanding of the existence of pain and of the desirability of personal choice. The above speakers began with a common moral view that was impossible before science forced us rethink our assumptions. It seems to me that science guided every word.

    • Adriana says:

      “I cannot imagine two people in the 1200s accepting that an animal is capable of conscious consent…”

      An animal is not capable of informed consent, as it does not really know what you are about to do. It can be happy or unhappy with the results though.

      “… or that consent even matters between any two conscious beings. These are relatively modern notions, both of which were influenced by science”

      Well that’s patently incorrect. If consent didn’t matter between any two conscious beings then what did they consider the difference between a Gift and Theft to be?

      • Roy Niles says:

        All animals survive by anticipating what another animal is about to do. They are quite capable of knowing when consent or dissent becomes an option. Even Pigliucci knows that much.

  4. Mike says:

    This review had about as much intellectual substance as an issue of TV Guide. I’d expect this from Glenn Beck, not a legitimate philosopher.

    For those who may be interested in reading a response from Harris to a far more meritorious review the following links will guide you there.

    Review:
    http://jetpress.org/v21/blackford3.htm

    Harris’ response:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/a-response-to-critics_b_815742.html

    • James Carlson says:

      In his defense, most reviews of anything at all have “about as much intellectual substance as an issue of TV Guide”. After all, that’s pretty much all TV Guide actually is — reviews.

    • DaveBot says:

      Ha! Glenn Beck. I like your style Mike. Comparing a scholarly and unemotive article to the work of an unhinged conspiracy-theory promoting charlatan who operates entirely by whipping up the emotions in absence of facts. Ballsy move, I admire your courage in making such an obviously foolish claim in front of people.

      Hoped no-one would notice how facile and unrealistic your comparison was? Hoped no one had ever watched Glenn Beck’s show? Certainly you hoped that no-one would notice that your complaint that this article lacked substance… lacked substance. :p

  5. James Carlson says:

    IRT: the Mystery Photo. Those aren’t stuffed bears and a penguin — they’re mini-sasquatches; the man on the left is famed zoologist and well-rounded imagination junkie Ivan Sanderson. I’m not certain about the other guy. Didn’t he play one of the mental patients in “Pressure Point”, with Sidney Poitier and Bobby Darin? Just a tongue-in-cheek guess…

  6. Travis Lamar says:

    Mystery Photo: Frank Sulloway; The Galapagos; trying to attract a Blue-footed Booby in a bizarre way more suitable for attracting human children.

  7. Dr. Strangelove says:

    I read Sam Harris’ response to critics. To sum his thesis: well-being is moral, unwell-being is immoral. He tried hard to argue that this is true. Following this thesis, he showed convincingly that morality is objective and scientific.

    Therefore, morality is objective and scientific only if you agree that healthy is moral and unhealthy is immoral. Therefore, his thesis is subjective and unscientific.

    It is a fact that smoking is unhealthy. It is an opinion that smoking is immoral. Harris insists that unhealthy is immoral. Do you all agree? Or to disagree is false?

    • Rupam says:

      I agree. I am even optimist about scientifically quantifying ‘well-being’. But, I find no defense to the argument that well-being is moral. If I want unwell-being of myself, is it then immoral? What does it mean extra for something to be immoral than well-being? That someone got a right to intervene such actions? That is another level of religious lunacy. But, if Sam means nothing more than unwell-being by immorality, then why he has to use the word immoral anymore?

  8. F Kilkenny says:

    “This review had about as much intellectual substance as an issue of TV Guide.” Nice rhetoric, but completely wrong. This review was spot on. With rigorous logic Pigliucci points to the gaping holes in Harris’ argument. The revelation of Harris’ slight of hand and scholarly laziness may be painful to his supporters, but that doesn’t justify the claims that this review is “petty” or lacks “substance.” I suspect most of the negativity toward Pigliucci’s review are knee-jerk reactions from commenters who already agreed with Harris. And, as Dr. Strangelove points out Harris’ response to critics was anemic at best, demonstrating clearly that his argument has a built in moral philosophy that he doesn’t want to admit to.

    • Roy Niles says:

      Rigorous logic? Extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate? Hardly. The things most wrong with Harris’ book are the mis-assumptions about the biological basis of morality that he and Pigliucci unfortunately have in common. Leaving Pigliucci, unaware of his own biases, to nitpick about the minor aspects of their “philosophical” differences. Neither being the philosopher that they ought to be for their purposes here, but Harris clearly the better at the science.

      • DaveBot says:

        So the Is/Ought problem is mere philosophical nitpicking… how would you propose to close the divide?
        If your only complaint is that Pigliucci sees a different problem with Harris’ thesis than you do, then write your own review! You can’t expect Pigliucci to read your mind and write the article you would have written…

        • Roy Niles says:

          P Beattle (below) wrote the review I would or should have written if I only could have. And having bought the book in the meantime, I see things that, except for that review, I wouldn’t have. The is/ought nit looks more and more like a red derring.

  9. Michael Montgomery says:

    I find it confusing that one fails to recognize the benefits of understanding the physiology and pathophysiology of behavior, emotion and thought. Should we still be thinking that philosophical arguments are the most fruitful pathway to enlightenment in this area? The reviewer’s use of the quote from Plato, as the most convincing reason morality is not a theistic endeavor is absurd. One’s thoughts are not valid evidence. I found the example given of the philosophical defense of vegetarianism to be bizarre and unilluminating. A perfect example of the variability between humans in cortical function. This is the second review of this book that I read by a philosopher (other in the NY Times) and I have found both reviews to be beset with a threatened posturing and bereft of substantive critique.

    • DaveBot says:

      Perhaps you lack the philosophical understanding that would help you recognise substantive critique?

    • J says:

      “One’s thoughts are not valid evidence”

      Sure. As much as logic and mathematics, which are only in “one’s thoughts”, are also not valid evidence. They are not science. The point being: if you start by defining that only scientific evidence is valid, then you can’t blame other types of reasoning for not being good enough just because they aren’t scientific. Well, you conceivably can, but it’s hardly relevant.

  10. F Kilkenny says:

    And how exactly does this review fail to recognize the important contributions of behavioral sciences? It’s pretty clear that Pigliucci agrees that fields studying such things are relevant to informing any moral debate. But what he has pointed out is that we still need to use some sort of moral framework that comes from philosophy and not science. Harris himself starts with the position that the maintenance of well-being in conscious creature is good, but this is a philosophical position not a testable hypothesis. Science can certainly help us determine whether well-being is being maintained but not whether that is the right measure to use or whether it is automatically “good.” I personally find it irksome, and so does Pigliucci, that Harris is so completely dismissive of the whole field of philosophy which has wrestled with these issues for thousands of years. He could have at least tried.

  11. Dr. Strangelove says:

    This is a problem of semantics. “Moral” and “immoral” have different meanings to different people. To avoid confusion, maybe we should stop using these words altogether.

    Harris would have been more straightforward had he just said “let’s do away with ethics and morality, and replace them with psychology and healthcare.” Richard Feynmann said the philosophy of science is as important to scientists as ornithology is important to birds. Can the same be said of ethics?

    It is one thing to say ‘zebras are horses’ and another to say “forget about zebras, let’s just deal with horses.” Harris is claiming the former but the latter is more truthful of his intent.

  12. Loughlin Tatem says:

    I bought the book,and other Sam Harris’ books. I did not need a book review to know I was getting interesting material for my money.

  13. Loughlin Tatem says:

    Philosophy has not found a way to prevent primitive backwardness of dark-aged-behavior from mutilating genitals with cracked sea shells by light of burning bush. I am prepared to try Science.

    • DaveBot says:

      Ok, we’ll wait for you here. When you get back we expect a peer reviewed study proving moral intuitions or your cap in hand to philosophy.

  14. Tom Edgar says:

    Polysyllabic platitudinous philosophical profundities postulating precisely. ???????

    Is it just. “I don’t agree with your approach therefore YOU are wrong?” Who then is the more extreme egotist?

  15. Marc Blackburn says:

    Without having read the book it is apparent that Pigliucci’s is a terrible review. Does he really think focusing on his opinions makes a relevant review?

    And let me be the third (so far) to comment on the bizarre example of vegetarian logic. I absolutely do not find equating bestiality with eating a hamburger to be persuasive. Rather It makes me wonder about the emotional stability of said vegetarian and the rationality of anyone who would endorse that line of reasoning.

    Finally, thanks to Mike, and his reference to the excellent review at: http://jetpress.org/v21/blackford3.htm

    • DaveBot says:

      Ha! “I need No evidence to know this is a bad review! I need not read the book to know this critique of the argument presented within! I AM PSYCHIC FOR SAM HARRIS!”. I like it.

    • J says:

      “I absolutely do not find equating bestiality with eating a hamburger to be persuasive.”

      It is not supposed to be persuasive. It is supposed to be logical, in the context of the story. Which is was — both are instances of exploiting a non-consenting creature, aren’t they. Someone might even say that the killing and eating is worse than the sex — which, who knows, the animal might even end up enjoying. But you obviously did not understand that point, so I don’t know why I’m even repeating it. You are flying on emotion only there, it sounds like.

      “Rather It makes me wonder about the emotional stability of said vegetarian and the rationality of anyone who would endorse that line of reasoning.”

      Well, it would all be very clear if you used rationality instead of emotion yourself in this case…

  16. Marlowe says:

    Sam Harris’ book might have been better received if he had left “morality” out of the discussion. He could have made the argument that science can contribute to the wellbeing of humans (which it is has always done in any case), without equating wellbeing with moral systems.

    Worse–much, much worse–is that Harris cannot define the very moral precept he is championing. I defy anyone to find a coherent definition of “wellbeing” in The Moral Landscape. What you find instead is what Harris repeats in his Huffington Post defense, his TED talk, his Edge article, and likely elsewhere: that wellbeing is like good health. Many readers (see Jerry Coyne, e.g.) find this analogy satisfactory.

    The problem is that health can be quantified in many ways — blood pressure, cholesterol level, kidney function, and so forth. Harris wants us to simply accept that the (undefined) foundation of his moral system has that same measurable, quantifiable characteristic, and is therefore amenable to scientific analyses and improvement.

    I am an ardent fan of Harris. I’ve read all three of his books and I look forward to the next one. But I’m pretty sure this particular emperor needs pants.

    • DaveBot says:

      “He could have made the argument that science can contribute to the wellbeing of humans (which it is has always done in any case), without equating wellbeing with moral systems.”

      Yes. That would be a book that would not be getting all these negative reviews from philosophers and others who understand his mistake.

      “But I’m pretty sure this particular emperor needs pants.”

      Yup

  17. Marshall says:

    I think a no-lie zone as large as conceivable would be a wonderful idea, assuming it worked for everybody. The generating device should be instantiated as a lapel pin to be worn by everyone in a position of public trust, which is to say everybody. So they can hear no lies, as well as speak none. Not to worry, there will still be plenty of honest mistakes,

  18. by P. Beattie says:

    Harris and Pigliucci: On moral philosophy

    Say what you will, Sam Harris knows how to stir a hive and send its inhabitants into a positive buzz. Some of them will turn this into an opportunity to get some intellectual exercise. Others may fly into a frenzy and sting at anything and everything, eventually disembowelling themselves intellectually in the process. Of the first, Brother Blackford (to co-opt a recently Coyned soubriquet) is a prime example: his ruminations are clearly valuable to the discussion. But where clarity is its own reward, the contributions of others need to be carefully disentangled from their ill-conceived targets, in order that everybody may see clearly where they went off course. Massimo Pigliucci has thankfully supplied us with such an opportunity—one is tempted to say: again.

    http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2011/harris-and-pigliucci-on-moral-philosophy/

  19. Derek says:

    Regarding the vegetarianism / bestiality argument I am amazed that philosophers put so much effort into showing people to be inconsistent / hypocritical / illogical. It is easy to corner someone in an argument to show they are illogical. “You think inflicting pain is morally wrong? But you eat meat every day! You are being hypocritical and must change your opinion or your behavior to become less so…” People are motivated by their irrational minds, not their rational minds. Rationality is a superficial dressing that may or may not match their actual motivations, and if not, it matters little. PS. I liked Massimo’s review.

    • J says:

      “It is easy to corner someone in an argument to show they are illogical.”

      Yes, but it is only really rewarding to do it to those people who think of themselves as such rational bastions of the human race, against the whole scientific evidence to the contrary, namely that hyper-rationality is actually detrimental. And impossible unless you have a brain defect, of course.

      “You are being hypocritical and must change your opinion or your behavior to become less so…”

      Well, I for one am perfectly happy to be a walking contradiction, since that is to be human. So I will gladly go on eating meat every day while at the same time not having sex with any non-human animals, even if both do indeed qualify, logically, as exploitation of non-consenting creatures.

  20. Adam says:

    Harris lost all scientific credibility with me when started to write things such as: “While the possibilities of human experience must be realized in the brains that evolution has built for us, our brains were not designed with a view to our ultimate fulfillment. Evolution could never have foreseen the wisdom or necessity of creating stable democracies…” (p. 13)… and the like.
    This sort of “Evolution as Creator” metaphor (which is rampant in popular science writing) offends me as a scientist. Of course evolution could never have foreseen anything: evolution is a process, not an entity! UCLA ought to take back this idiot’s Ph.D.. The only reason I could keep reading past that point is that I’m open-minded and seek to understand arguments from people with whom I disagree. Although I must say that I found Harris’ rhetorical style to be highly condescending and dismissive.

  21. Dave says:

    Richard Dawkins’ TV series was titled “Root of All Evil” by the show’s producers, over Dawkins’ objections.

  22. Atir Javid says:

    If the author of this article isn’t shamed by his own idiocy then any further comments are simply futile.

  23. Rupam says:

    I agree with the writer when he says he does not think many moral questions can be answered by science. Many of the examples were appropriate. What bothers me is his assertions of “an obvious corollary of our moral realism, both Harris and I think that moral relativism is a silly notion, and that it is in fact downright pernicious in its effects on individuals and society.” this rejection of moral realism is not justified, almost to the same extent as Sam Harris rejects meta-ethics. I rather think that Massimo Pigliucci’s line of thoughts is in greater peril than Sam. If I understand what Massimo means by moral realism, it occurs to me that then morality has to be a subject of science. Otherwise, using what apparatus the truth value of some moral propositions can be determined? In that sense, Sam’s arguments are rather more consistent, although indefensible. The same way that neuscience can’t tell whether genital mutilation is right or wrong, no other observation can confirm a truth value of this moral question. these are entirely questions of subjective values. If there is no objective answer to the question of whether crushing a rock is right or wrong, same is true for the questions related to human being, because the difference between a rock and a human being does not lie in the objectivity of values. It is of course a moral relativist position, but it being “downright pernicious in its effects on individuals and society” does not make this position invalid.

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