The following logic scheme is based on the TED lecture “Science can answer moral questions” by Dr. Sam Harris, dated March 2010.
Questions of morality cannot be answered by science.
Science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value.
Facts and values seem to belong to different spheres.
Science deals with facts – reality which is objectively verifiable.
1.3. Presumptive Conclusion:
Science therefore cannot discuss values.
This is quite clearly untrue.
Values are a certain kind of fact about the well-being of conscious creatures.
We do not feel ethical obligations toward rocks because we do not think they can suffer.
We are more concerned with about our fellow primates than we are about insects because we think they are exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering.
This is something that we could be right or wrong about.
There is no version of human morality and human values that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.
It is possible to imagine a human existence in which everything is as bad as it can get.
It is possible to imagine the opposite.
We know there is a continuum of such facts and that there are right and wrong answers to how to move in this space.
There are truths to be known about how human communities flourish, whether or not we understand these truths.
Morality relates to these truths.
So, in talking about values we are talking about facts.
If we’re going to talk about human well-being we are, of necessity, talking about the human brain.
If culture changes us, as indeed it does, it changes us by changing our brains.
And so therefore whatever cultural variation there is in how human beings flourish can, at least in principle, be understood in the context of a maturing science of the mind – neuroscience, psychology, etc.
Values can be reduced to facts about the conscious experience of conscious beings.
Science is not guaranteed to map all values.
Nor will we have scientific answers to every conceivable moral question.
But if questions affect human well-being 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.
Is there any doubt that any question about human well-being has an answer, and that it matters?
7.1.A. E.g., Fact:
The notion of well-being is truly undefined, and seemingly perpetually open to be re-construed.
7.1.B. E.g., Question:
And so, how therefore can there be an objective notion of well-being?
7.2.A. E.g., Fact:
Notice that the fact that the concept of health is open, genuinely open for revision, does not make it vacuous.
7.2.B. E.g., Question:
Now, why wouldn’t this undermine an objective morality?
8.A. E.g., Fact:
There is not one right food to eat.
8.B. E.g., Fact:
There is a distinction between food and poison.
8.C. E.g., Conclusion:
The fact that there are many right answers to the question, “What is food?” does not tempt us to say that there are no truths to be known about human nutrition.
9.A. E.g., Fact:
Now, if you’re going to play good chess, a principle like, “Don’t lose your Queen,” is very good to follow.
9.B. E.g., Fact:
However, there are moments when losing your Queen is a brilliant thing to do. There are moments when it is the only good thing you can do.
9.C. E.g., Conclusion:
And yet, chess is a domain of perfect objectivity. The fact that there are exceptions here does not change that at all.
10.1.A. E.g., Fact:
The Dalai Lama gets up every morning meditating on compassion, and he thinks that helping other human beings is an integral component of human happiness.
10.1.B. E.g., Fact:
Ted Bundy was very fond of abducting and raping and torturing and killing young women.
10.1.C. E.g., Conclusion:
So, we appear to have a genuine difference of opinion about how to profitably use one’s time.
Most Western intellectuals look at this situation and say, “Well, there’s nothing for the Dalai Lama to be really right about, or for Ted Bundy to be really wrong about that admits of a real argument that potentially falls within the purview of science.”
Notice that we don’t do this in science.
10.3.A. E.g., Assumption:
If you ask the smartest physicists around who is the smartest physicist around, Ed Witten or myself, probably half of them will say Ed Witten. The other half will tell you they don’t like the question.
10.3.B. E.g., Fact:
So, what would happen if I showed up at a physics conference and said,”String theory is bogus. It doesn’t resonate with me. It’s not how I chose to view the universe at a small scale. I’m not a fan.” Well, nothing would happen because I’m not a physicist; I don’t understand string theory. I wouldn’t want to belong to any string theory club that would have me as a member.
Whenever we are talking about facts certain opinions must be excluded. That is what it is to have a domain of expertise. That is what it is for knowledge to count.
How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise, or moral talent, or moral genius even?
How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count?
How have we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering?
Does the Taliban have a point of view on physics that is worth considering?
How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of human well-being?
It is possible for individuals, and even for whole cultures, to care about the wrong things, which is to say that it’s possible for them to have beliefs and desires that reliably lead to needless human suffering.
We live in a world filled with destructive technology, and this technology cannot be uninvented.
It will always be easier to break things than to fix them.
It seems to me, therefore, patently obvious that we can no more respect and tolerate vast differences in notions of human well-being than we can respect or tolerate vast differences in the notions about how disease spreads, or in the safety standards of buildings and airplanes.
We simply must converge on the answers we give to the most important questions in human life. And to do that, we have to admit that these questions have answers.