Sam Harris and the Demarcation Problem

6a00e554e8195d883301a73d8ae293970dby Paul So

Sam Harris is known for many things, from being one of the leading figures of the New Atheist movement to a controversial critic of Islam. he is also known for arguing that science can provide answers to questions regarding morality [1]. For him, morality is within the domain of science.

How is this possible, exactly? After all, science deals with facts, not values. Harris proposes that the term science is far more inclusive than we normally understand. There is no fundamental distinction, for instance, between a scientist working in a laboratory and a plumber identifying problems in a plumbing system. The distinction between them is merely conventional, because what really counts is that doing science means using reason and observation. As long as a given domain can be the subject of reasoned inquiry and observation, it belongs to the broader domain of science.

Here is how Harris himself puts it in his essay responding to Ryan Born’s critique [2,3]:

“For practical reasons, it is often necessary to draw boundaries between academic disciplines, but physicists, chemists, biologists, and psychologists rely on the same processes of thought and observation that govern all our efforts to stay in touch with reality.”


Many people think about science primarily in terms of academic titles, budgets, and architecture, and not in terms of the logical and empirical intuitions that allow us to form justified beliefs about the world.” 

As well as:

“I am, in essence, defending the unity of knowledge — the idea that the boundaries between disciplines are mere conventions and that we inhabit a single epistemic sphere in which to form true beliefs about the world.”

It seems from the above that Harris thinks science is just the application of reason and observation in order to arrive at justified true beliefs about the world. To be more precise, what Harris would likely say is that science is conceived as consisting in applying reason and observation with the intention to acquire justified true beliefs (otherwise, every time a scientific notion turns out to be false we would have to conclude that it wasn’t science to begin with).

As long as we use reason and observation with proper epistemic intentions, we are doing science regardless of whether or not we really do acquire true beliefs. Even if we found out that some of our beliefs are false, we can always try to replace them with better justified ones. While this definition too is not without problems, I will assume this is what Harris has in mind. I’ll argue, however, that if science is conceived as just applying reason and observation with an intention to acquire justified true beliefs, this leads to one of the best known problems in the philosophy of science: the demarcation problem.

The demarcation problem is the problem of how we differentiate science from pseudoscience in principle. In other words, the demarcation problem consists in finding some principles, criteria, reasons, or conditions to place something like astronomy under “science” and place its counterpart astrology as a pseudoscience. However, for every proposed claim about what distinguishes science from pseudoscience, there’s a counter-example. For example, Karl Popper proposed that falsification is the criterion for distinguishing science from pseudoscience. If any set of claims or theory is falsifiable, it belongs to the domain of science. But if any set of claims or theory is unfalsifiable, it belongs to the domain of pseudoscience. However, this criterion is too strict because some untestable scientific claims ranging from string theory to the many-worlds interpretation are not considered pseudoscience.

How is the problem of demarcation relevant to Harris’ definition of science? If science is any activity that relies on reason and observation (or empirical and logical intuitions) with the intention to produce justified true belief, then the concept includes many things that are considered to be pseudoscience or non-science. Consider three examples.

First, phrenology. Phrenology is now relegated to pseudoscience, but during the 19th century many people took it seriously. Phrenology claims that personalities, emotions, talents, and such are caused by the activity of very specific regions of the brain. The theory of Phrenology was developed by Franz Joseph Gall, on the basis of his observations of the size of many skulls. Harris’ definition of science seems to force him to accept that phrenology is in fact a science.

Second, Intelligent Design (ID). Many people like to ridicule proponents of ID as mindless buffoons, but in fact the public figures of ID like Stephen C. Meyers and Michael Behe are well-educated and thoughtful people. This doesn’t mean that their claims are true. After all, it’s possible to be well-educated, thoughtful, and yet fundamentally misguided. But ID proponents like Stephen C. Meyers do in fact use reason and observation to support their claim. They give arguments and provide what they think of as empirical evidence for their conclusion that there must be an intelligent designer. In effect, they are doing science according to Harris’ definition.

As a side note, someone could object that ID proponents are using reason and observation too poorly for what they do to be considered science. Moreover, what they are doing goes against the established body of knowledge. Yet, Harris’ definition of science does not really include any qualification concerning the quality of using reason and observation. Harris could propose to amend his definition to say that reason and observation need to be used well. I shall address this later. As to the second point, going against the body of established knowledge may seem irrational, but we want to be careful because many scientists who initiated a breakthrough were going against established the then accepted body of knowledge. Albert Einstein’s General Relativity went against Newtonian Mechanics, which was an established body of theoretical knowledge. However, we certainly don’t want to say that Einstein was being irrational.

Third, consider Natural Theology. Regardless of what one may think of Natural Theology, we can all agree that it is not a science. However, natural theologians use observation and reason to support their claim that God exists. One notable example is the fine tuning argument. Natural theologians observe that the values of the cosmological constants are conducive to the existence of life, and they make an inference to the best explanation (at least in their view) that God is responsible for so structuring the universe. Whether or not this is a convincing argument, natural theologians are indeed using both observation and reason to support their claim. According to Harris’ definition of science, Natural Theology is therefore a science.

What I’m trying to argue by way of these counterexamples is that Harris’ conception of science is far too broad. It readily includes a number of notions that most of us wouldn’t consider to be within the domain of science, and reasonably so. In fact, it seems to include things that are considered to be downright pseudoscience, or theology. It should therefore be apparent that Harris’ definition of science is not very helpful, as it exacerbates the demarcation problem.

Harris could reply by arguing that he wants to make a distinction between a rigorous and reliable use of reason and observation and a loose and unreliable use of reason and observation. Anything that counts as science involves a rigorous and reliable use of reason and observation, whereas pseudoscience involves a loose and unreliable use of reason and observation, although both have the intention to produce a justified true belief. With this new distinction, Harris could exclude ID, Phrenology, and Natural Theology from the domain of science because they involve a very sloppy and unreliable use of reason and observation.

However, even Harris’ improved definition wouldn’t work. Even if it succeeds in excluding ID, Phrenology, and Natural Theology, it ends up excluding a lot of science. There are many scientific works that are not very rigorous and reliable. For example, more often than most people realize, peer review journals tend to publish scientific works afflicted by serious methodological problems.

One also has to consider the kind of scientific work at the frontier of knowledge. A lot of this works will turn out to be mistaken, because it is dealing with something that is barely within the grasp of science. For example, consider some cutting edge work on neuroscience. Despite the fact that neuroscience has made enormous progress of late, there is of course still a lot that neuroscientists do not know. Application of the scientific method in this domain began rather poorly (not rigorously, and somewhat unreliably), but eventually improved, and continues to improve. Still, even according to Harris’ augmented definition, neuroscience done poorly is not within the domain of science.

Harris may, of course, continue to modify and improve his definition, but he also wants to maintain it as broad as possible, in order to include ethics within the domain of science. This is a very difficult, if not impossible, challenge. What we have seen so far is that he has to narrow down his definition in order to avoid embarrassing counter examples. But if he is forced to continue on this path, there’s a potential problem that his eventual definition will end up either being beyond recognition and familiarity, or fail in its stated purpose to include branches of philosophy such as ethics.

Some readers may at this point conclude that this is merely a semantic issue. In an important sense,  they are correct. After all, Harris provides a definition of science, and I am disputing it. This is a discussion about the meaning of words, that is, about semantics. But contra popular understanding, semantic issue aren’t pointless. On the contrary, they are quite instructive. Mine is a cautionary tale on what happens when one broadens the meaning of an important word too much, leading straight into clearly unintended and perhaps even embarrassing consequences. One simply has to be careful with how one uses words, especially when one’s entire argument depends on it. Despite being a good writer, Harris, it turns out, is not careful with his words.


Paul So is a graduate student studying for the Master’s program in the Philosophy Department at Texas Tech University. His main focus is Philosophy of Mind.

[1] The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, by S. Harris, Free Press, 2010.

[2] Clarifying the Moral Landscape, by S. Harris.

[3] The Moral Landscape Challenge: The Winning Essay, by R. Born.


103 thoughts on “Sam Harris and the Demarcation Problem

  1. Just to confuse the issues I’ll mention that His Holiness the Dalai Lama briefly met Popper. With Popper in mind he defines Buddhism as a science of mind. If it would qualify this then Sam Harris is right, science can deal with ethics. This raises the stakes for the demarcation problem.



  2. @ Labnut:

    “Historically this claim has its origin in theology and it can be traced back to the later Hebrew belief in YHWH, a single rational cause/ground of existence. This belief was further elaborated by the Augustinian-Thomists, becoming the foundation for Christianity. The belief in a single, rational cause of existence has as its natural corollary, the belief in the rational unity of knowledge. This in turn established a bedrock of belief, in Europe, in the rational unity of knowledge, which gave birth to the scientific revolution in Europe.”

    Determining the genealogy of such things is always tricky. I will only say that developments in Greece amongst the Presocratics (and, in terms of later influence, we should of course also strongly consider Plato and Aristotle) should also be considered. In particular, philosopher Aryeh Finkelberg of Tel Aviv University has written on precisely this point, in which he connects what he describes as pantheistic goals of Presocratics with their development of a materialist, monistic theory:

    “The Milesian Monistic Doctrine and the Development of Presocratic Thought.” Hermes 117:3, pp. 257-270.

    Coel’s basic problem (and Harris’) is the old one of reductionism, which we’ve done to death here. Fodor commented on this sort of thing in his 1997 sequel (a reply to Jaegwon Kim) to his famous “Special Sciences” paper:

    “So, then, why is there anything except physics? …Well, I admit that I don’t know why. I don’t even know how to think about why. I expect to figure out why there is anything except physics the day before I figure out why there is anything at all, another (and, presumably, related) metaphysical conundrum that I find perplexing.

    …The world, it seems, runs in parallel, at many levels of description. You may find that perplexing; you certainly aren’t obliged to like it. But I do think we had all better learn to live with it.”

    “Special Sciences: Still Autonomous After All These Years.” Nous 31 (1997), pp. 161-162.

    A more interesting aspect of this (to me, anyway) is the question of epistemic values, regarding which Putnam wrote in The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy (note- dichotomy but not distinction, the latter of which Putnam upholds):

    “…science itself presupposes values- …epistemic values (coherence, simplicity and the like) are values, too, and are in the same boat as ethical values with respect to objectivity.” (p. 4)

    Part of this analysis of the fact/value issue is an extension of work by Iris Murdoch, John McDowell and others, whom Putnam cites repeatedly, including Murdoch’s “wonderful book, The Sovereignty of Good.” (p. 40)

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  3. This topic always reminds me of Kant’s “Science of Right” (juriscientia), which was once very influential to me. It seems to me that Kant’s approach to morality is similar to the development of mathematical theories. If we set aside, for the moment, the question of justified true belief, we could say that mathematical systems are developed to eliminate contradiction and to minimize the dissonance between intuition and implications. The intuitive aspect is informed by empirical observation, but the ultimate goal and role of mathematics is prescriptive. Many would say that mathematics is not itself science, but it is certainly foundational to a lot of scientific theory.

    It seems that moral reasoning has features similar to mathematics. It is driven by a desire to minimize contradiction and dissonance between intuition and implication. And we can’t have science without certain ethical minima. Science is a social institution. If its participants don’t behave, it falls apart. Maybe moral theory isn’t part of science proper, but it certainly has much closer adjacency and relevance than theology.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. This is an attempted answer to many of the comments above.

    There is a science called ethology. It comes from “ethos” which means character. Ethology is the logic of character. Ethos also gave the notion of ethics.

    Ethology originally was the study of character of animals, from their objective behavior. A number of methods pertaining to the field were developed, Nobel Prizes in biology and medicine were awarded to ethologists.
    Then, in the following decades, it dawned on ethologists that the methods of ethology could be extended to the study of the human character.

    This is why I am surprised that so many commenters, in answer to Coel, said that one needs a metaphysics to have an ethics. Instead, ethics is something that is determined by the bottom up (instead of top down).

    First, through trial, error, and natural selection, human ethology evolved in the last 500 million years. Second, human beings observe, and make theories, even ethical theories, and then they apply what is basically the scientific method to them.

    The scientific method consists in establishing with reasonable certainty facts. As it becomes ever more subtle, it can address ever more sophisticated domains, which used to be exclusively philosophical.

    An example? The Theory of Mind. That is a subject long exclusively philosophical. However, scientific research published in recent years showed that children exposed to a second language have, in the average, a better theory of mind. Here is a fresh example, published in 2015:

    Here is a quote (for those who can’t get through the pay wall):
    “HUMAN beings are not born with the knowledge that others possess minds with different contents. Children develop such a “theory of mind” gradually, and even adults have it only imperfectly. But a study by Samantha Fan and Zoe Liberman at the University of Chicago, published in Psychological Science, finds that bilingual children, and also those simply exposed to another language on a regular basis, have an edge at the business of getting inside others’ minds… Some objects were blocked from the experimenter’s sight, a fact the children could clearly see. With a large, a medium and a small car visible to the child, but the small car hidden from the adult, the adult would ask “I see a small car” and ask the child to move it. Both bilingual and those in the exposure group moved the medium-sized car (the smallest the experimenter could see) about 75% of the time, against 50% for the monolinguals. The successful children were less likely even to glance at the car the experimenter could not see.”

    Why is this happening? Multilingual children observe that different languages provide with different perspectives, thus different theories (theory means literally, to “see” (horan) a “view” (thea)). So they are more apt to consider which view others see, when considering others.

    Multilingual children have a theory of theories of behavior, and we can prove it scientifically. Epistemics is now a science. And that informs morality.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Hi schlafly, I agreed with your statement…

    It would be more useful to criticize Harris’s conclusions, rather than his definitions.

    This is in large part because in his “clarification” he is willing to cede his broad definition of science (waving it off as a semantic issue). Still, that does not mean attacking his definitions are not worthwhile where they have flaws. The point is made that his definition would allow more in than most would be comfortable with, and as I discussed that could have direct ramifications if ID part 2 ends up in the courts.

    I suspect that one reason the skeptics like Harris is that he has the guts to criticize Islam.

    What does that have to do with turning a blind eye to the flaws in his moral and free will theories? People can like his guts all they want, but a sceptic ought to be able to spot rather glaring flaws in logic and incorrect statements on the subjects he is discussing and comment on them openly. Otherwise they aren’t sceptics.

    Of course I’m a bit sceptical whether it takes “guts” to write and say things in line with the policies of the state and beliefs of the community one lives in. But well, I’m a sceptic.

    Others keep quiet because they do not want to be beheaded, or called bigots.

    Wait are you saying that all sceptics like Sam’s works, but some are just afraid if they admit it they’ll be killed by Islamic extremists?

    Or is it that those in the sceptic movement that are critical of Sam stay silent because they’re afraid if they speak out against his theories other sceptics will behead them, or call them bigots?

    Yeah, either way, call me sceptical.

    Hi Michael Faulkner, you asked…

    If Harris is such a philosophical waste of space why are there so many articles on this website that continually state that he is an idiot?

    Just to be clear, I haven’t seen an article here stating that Sam Harris is an idiot. At least the one I wrote didn’t. If he was an idiot, I wouldn’t have bothered trying to engage him.

    The problem (as several have suggested) is that he doesn’t seem to have applied himself to the problems he addresses. Laziness? The product of low expectations? Sycophancy?

    So his writing, which is credited as philosophical and scientific (by his publishers and friends… not peer review), comes off surprisingly weak, mere pontification. I believe Massimo used the term dilettante and that would seem accurate for the level of engagement he displays with his subject matter.

    Thus his works get and deserve to be hammered hard, especially since he uses the popular press to bypass the normal peer review process for scientists and (I assume) academic philosophers. Certainly the book I am on got peer reviewed before publication.

    So here is the peer review he gets. Note my article was in response to the promotional event for his book.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Massimo, thanks! I’ve begun thinking there are a lot more nominal sceptics than practicing ones. But yeah, it is surprising how such bad reasoning gets swallowed so easily (and then protected as if gospel) by members of a community that are supposed to be devoted to staunch critique.

    If schlafly is right, why don’t they just call themselves the “I hate X club” (replace X with whatever is hot at the moment) and have done with it.

    To everyone knocking Coel, I think people are missing his point regarding science’s limited relation to morality, of which I largely agree. This will drag commentary way off topic so I will not pursue it here. But to me there is no problem with saying science can only provide a descriptive account (studying the nature of morality in humans/animals) or provide practical information to enhance one’s own moral choices (if you feel X is good, here is the fastest/easiest way to attain it). Neither is it reductionist (or at least it doesn’t have to be). I thought ejwinner’s post attacking his political arguments was clever, and deserved a response, but I don’t see his actions as hypocrisy or not caring about his moral anti-realist position. Moral anti-realism does not mean that ethics and ethical discussion (or political) are pointless or simply empty rhetoric. Hopefully we can address/explore this concept in later essays.

    Hi John M, I agree with your assessment. Trying to assemble his stated theories and arguments into a single, coherent picture only ends up highlighting the problems across all of his works. The pieces don’t fit. I wish Dennett had been more successful in addressing him, or influential in persuading Sam’s fans there might be something wrong.


  7. This science/religion, ethics/morals topic has interested me for decades. The one thing I almost never see brought up in these blogs and comments is the ORIGINS of ethics and morals. When one realizes that ethics, morals and even the vaunted trait of altruism ALL evolved in the animal kingdom, millions of years before man evolved or ANY religions existed, it sort of blows holes in the argument that religion has exclusivity in the moral realm. Dame Jane Goodall, George Schaller, Frans de Waal and other ethologists PROVED that ethics and morals were inherited from our animal forbears as a survival enhancing trait.
    Some people claim that atheism is cruel and leads to living without hope. Nothing could be further from the truth! When one has a thorough understanding of science, evolution and the origins of ethics, religion fades in importance and hope springs eternal that science will be the guiding logic and rationality of man’s further enlightenment. Some say that an atheistic world view is incapable of having “confidence” in truth, goodness and beauty. I would reply that man’s ability to reason and think without the cloud of supernatural beliefs would clarify the real source of aesthetics involved with understanding these concepts. Their claim that belief in evolution gives one a “whole new creation story” that is difficult to grasp after millennia of religious dogma, doesn’t address the real issue of finally letting go of irrational belief systems and welcoming the necessary change and insight. They can’t handle that evolution is an ongoing process, so different than the static hierarchy that was the backbone of “traditional spirituality.” Yes, life is still evolving, the continental plates are still drifting… get used to it!
    For people who try to integrate “god” with science, I say go one step further and ELIMINATE “god” entirely from the equation. It becomes more and more easy when you see how weak the theological arguments have become!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. dbholmes,

    In regards to Coel’s view, it’s not so much that he is saying that science can contribute to the descriptive end of moral knowledge but he is claiming that there is nothing more than descriptive morality, excluding any normative morality.

    I doubt anyone here who has criticized Coel’s views on morality (or lack of there of) would say that science cannot contribute to morality, it has and it does (Massimo has written on this as well). Even older prescientific moral philosophers always had a descriptive aspect to their moral theory along with normative aspects and having more advance science nowadays allows for further refinement of morality.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Massimo,

    I appreciate your observation that “science deals in mechanisms and causes, and ‘supernatural’ is an empty word from that perspective,” insomuch as it debunks the New Atheist claim that science has disproved God. NAs, meanwhile, routinely play the “I never said that” game regarding claims for God’s nonexistence. Dawkins, who devoted an entire book to the claim that science disproves God, denies having made the claim. Maybe his typewriter made him type it? That’s all I can figure. Which would mean that his keyboard is possessed, which would mean Dawkins believes in keyboard possession, which would mean he’s a major proponent of woo-woo.

    Funny–if I engage in that kind of behavior (saying things, then denying that I said them), I’m a liar. Dawkins and Co. do it, and they’re brilliant mavericks.

    My only problem with your statement–“supernatural.” Like Amir Aczel, I don’t believe in a supernatural God. And, like Amir, I find a supernatural God not only a ridiculous notion, but one a little too conveniently easy for skeptics to shoot down. In fact, sometimes I suspect that’s why so many skeptics hew to a straight-from-the-Bible God (or, if we’re not in the mood to capitalize proper nouns, a “straight-from-the-bible god”)–namely, because debunking such a God/god/Gawd takes no effort at all. While I can see the appeal of keeping a debate as easy as possible, shouldn’t the goal be to keep it as honest as possible?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. [dbholmes] What does that have to do with turning a blind eye to the flaws in his moral and free will theories?

    No excuse. I think that Massimo has enumerated some of those flaws. Harris probably has many more flaws. I have posted my own, and I doubt that Massimo would agree with my criticisms of Harris.

    Wait are you saying that all sceptics like Sam’s works, but some are just afraid if they admit it they’ll be killed by Islamic extremists?

    A lot of Western leftist atheist intellectuals have a strange reluctance to criticize Islam. No, I don’t think that they are all worried about being killed. Maybe they are also worried about being called bigots. Or they dislike Christian and Israeli influence more, and they like Islam undermining that. Or they think that Islamic minorities will expand our social tolerances. Or they are secretly Moslems, like Barack Obama. (Just kidding about that last one.)

    [Massimo] Do you [have a definition of science]? I’d really like to hear it. Please, indulge me, give it a try.

    Physicist Harry Ellis gave a pretty good one in the above comments.

    [photojack53] ethologists PROVED that ethics and morals were inherited from our animal forbears as a survival enhancing trait.

    Some people here do not even believe that heritability applies to humans. You might want to show them the proof.

    When one has a thorough understanding of science, evolution and the origins of ethics, religion fades in importance and hope springs eternal that science will be the guiding logic and rationality of man’s further enlightenment.

    Can you give me such an example of an enlightened person? Sam Harris? Peter Singer? Dawkins? No thanks.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Coel:

    Cards on the table: I would argue that a concern for happiness and suffering is the only reasonable foundation for morality. If you reason objectively (not being biased, concern for evidence, careful attention to experience, consequences, coherence among one’s values etc) then you will, in the end come to conclude that our own and other people’s wellbeing is the only reasonable goal of morality.

    The problem I have with your position is that it does not give reason its due. It is too nihilistic, too relativistic. Wellbeing as the final end of morality is as reasonable as truth is for science, health is for medicine , Knoweldge and understanding is for education, profit is for business etc etc.

    If one, accepts wellbeing as the goal, and the concept is not entirely vacuous, and there is lawful regularity between certain actions, polices, political systems and their effects on human wellbeing then we can a moral science in the same way we can have economic science. Moral science studies the causes and consituents of wellbeing.


    You claim Harris is influential, but where is your evidence?

    I have followed your blog for years, read some of your books, and have read most – or nearly all – of your criticisms of Harris. Now, while I find a good deal of your non-Harris work very useful – I am thankful for your criticism of Chalmers (I have had similar thoughts for years but you expressed it crisply) and also your work on the philosophy of science and sticking up for philosophy more generally; however, I must disgree with your views on Harris. I don’t have space here to get into details, but over the years I seen you grow increasingly hostile, insulting, sneering. Ok, so that’s tone, but also I think that you have quoted his work out of context and misrepresented his basic positions.

    I know he is your bête noir, but I don’t think your being neither fair, nor accurate, nor indeed, civil with your dealings with him.

    I have wanted to say this for some years now Massimo, I have not becauae I consider it largely a waste of time.

    I would suggest that you two need to debate each other. Harris is usually very willing to debate people, and I thank you being a professional philosopher would be able to push him hard on a lot of issues – which I would like to see.



    Liked by 1 person

  12. @schlafly, I hope you’re just playing a devil’s advocate, but anyone in our 21st century world who DOESN’T believe that heritability applies to humans, needs their heads examined! The evidence is all over the human fossil record and is corroborated through the various genome decodings of our close common ancestors. Time to join the Flat Earth Society if you don’t believe that. People can’t decide NOT to “believe” facts.
    I would also say that “my enlightened person” would be most European and American atheists, those rejecting and turning away from religions and virtually ANYONE with a basic high school or college level of understanding about evolution. The only examples I can think of would be people who deny evolution and the biological origins of ethics and morals, based on “blind faith” in ANY evolution-denying religion, OR Republicans who blindly follow their party leadership like sheep. I’m open to hearing your further elucidation of what an enlightened person believes in this realm or more examples of the close-minded deniers.
    I really do think my reply at 6:10 P.M. above is a “final answer” to the biological origins of ethics and morals and therefore their place within science as a proper field of academic study. I’ve sadly watched even a great thinker like Richard Dawkins fumble his response to questions where my points would have clarified the scientific point of view and won the day for rationality.
    “… the use of our intelligence quite properly gives us pleasure. In this respect the brain is like a muscle. When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.” ~Dr. Carl Sagan quote.


  13. Coel:
    “Yes. Science is not limited by subject area, it encompases all domains of knowledge.”

    I think several people have taken you to task on many of your beliefs not being demonstrated by science.

    Let me take a different approach. Consider the cartesian skeptical arguments from a few posts back. Do you think your belief that your perceptions of reality reflect a reality? This belief is moer of an assumption of our observations (and science) rather than proved by it.

    Let me also say that I do not think history is science. Yet I think we can have justified true beliefs about history. Bart Ehrman (a historian) I think made some good points in this regard. He explained that history only happens once. It is not repeated. The historian tries to find out what probably happened that one time. Science attempts to find out how nature works. And so in science we can isolate variables and repeat processes to learn. This really doesn’t work with history.

    As far as saying science is just better quality reasoning is useless. It’s rare to find someone who thinks they are using poor quality reasoning. So arguing whether something is science or not devolves into arguing about whether someone is using high or low quality reasoning. This is not a step forward in understanding it’s a step backward.

    I think phillip is on to something in saying you are pragmatic. You keep talking about what “works”. It’s unclear what that means. Belief in real morals “works” for me. To the extent working means avoiding contradictory beliefs it may even work better then anti-realism. I might think morality is not real but then I find I am disposed to act as if it was real. Like Quine I think our beliefs are disposition to act a certain way when presented with certain circumstances. Even if I observed some observable evidence that showed real morality did not exist, (and I have not) escaping the belief that things really are right and wrong is not so easy.

    People think their opposing views on history “works” for them.

    I agree that false beliefs about science might be shown not to work. But there are more beliefs than scientific beliefs. In some of those areas asking what “works” doesn’t really make sense.


  14. Hi Alex SL,

    Science can either tell us there is no god in the same way that it can tell us there are no unicorns, or it cannot tell us there are no unicorns and in fact cannot really tell us anything ever.

    I didn’t say that science could not tell us that there is no God, just that I am yet to see such a thing.

    You mention Victor Spencer’s “Failed Hypothesis ” book, But that is just exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when I said that Natural Atheology is no better than, or even different from, Natural Theology.

    In fact arguments like “If there was a God then we would be able to travel to other worlds as easily as we travel between continents and breathe unaided on other planets and we can’t do that so there is no God”, makes William Lane Craig’s arguments positively brilliant by comparison (and, no, I don’t think that WLC’s arguments are brilliant).

    But here is the point, if we are going to insist that atheological arguments such as we get from Stenger and Dawkins are science, then it is science that suffers.

    We weaken the position against climate change deniers and anti vaxxers if, when we say that science supports these things, ‘science’ is something which includes arguments such as Stenger’s.

    Really, when Stenger writes something like that then his scientist hat is well and truly off and his armchair philosopher hat is firmly in place.

    Otherwise we have to find another word for what we used to call science. That would be a pity because ‘science’ was such a good word for it.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Hi Massimo,

    … just like you are shy to make positive claims about your conception of ethics, …

    Really? I’d thought I’d been as explicit and blatant as I could be about that!

    If you’re asking what ethical prescriptions follow from my view of meta-ethics the answer is none, none at all, that’s the whole point! That’s why I’m not presenting any. (Of course, I, as a human being with feelings and values, have my own opinions about various moral concerns, but they do not follow from my view of meta-ethics so they are irrelevant here.)

    … surely you can point me to a number of high profile papers in Nature or Science ….

    Alex has explained this for me. The conclusion of non-existence of unicorns, gods and the supernatural results from the lack of evidence for them. “I had no need of that hypothesis” — Laplace. They are thus excised by Occam’s Razor (which is a core part of the scientific method even if it is also part of philosophy.)

    If there is evidence for something labelled “supernatural” science investigates it via the evidence. If there is no evidence it is excised using Occam. Either way science can deal with it.

    “Lack of mechanism” is also no problem. We have no mechanism for the quantum non-determinacy of radioactive decay, yet that is within the domain of science. (Fuller argument that science can deal with the supernatural here.)

    Hi PeterJ,

    A plausible system of ethics will require an explicit metaphysical theory for its grounding axioms.

    That’s just such a philosopher’s approach, rigidly segregating metaphysics! A much better way of understanding human ethics is in terms of where they came from, Darwinian evolution.

    Hi Imad Zaheer,

    I’d love to see the study that showed there is no normative morality …

    Conclusions that there is no normative morality follows from the total lack of evidence for it, the fact that for millennia philosophers have tried to make a coherent moral-realist scheme and failed, and the fact that we have no conception of how moral realism would even be meaningful.

    Further, the only version of morals that clearly exists — namely, our feelings on how we treat each other — is much better explained as evolutionary programming to facilitate cooperative living.

    That idea is anti-realist since even if there were realist morals then Darwinian evolution would have no way of knowing about or caring about them.

    Hi ejwinner,

    Science will not get us above the conflict of interests that politics negotiates.

    Of course not! Of course politics and social interactions and ethical discussions and so on are of every importance to us. I’m baffled that you think I’ve said anything contrary to that. Of course humans have feelings about how they want things to be, and from those values derive moral prescriptions.

    Hence subjective morals. Humans issue moral imperatives owing to their values. But the idea of moral realism, of prescriptions that are independent of human feelings, is misconceived.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Robin Herbert,

    Sadly I can only repeat what I wrote before, and what you decided to ignore in favour of dismissing Stenger’s use of standard scientific reasoning as not good enough:

    Either you accept that science can tentatively (!) conclude absence beyond reasonable doubt (!) when evidence is absent that one would reasonably expect to be there. In that case, not applying the same approach to gods is special pleading.

    Or you argue that science cannot conclude absence just because evidence is absent that one would reasonably expect to be there, problem of induction and all that. Fine. But in that case, not applying the same approach to Yetis, Smurfs, intelligent designers, and cold fusion is special pleading: science cannot conclude anything, ever, about anything. You have not quite specified which of the two you choose.

    To me it all boils down to intellectual consistency – why is that so controversial here?

    I agree, however, that the position of science is weakened when believers are told that science refutes their beliefs. That is probably as good an explanation as any why we don’t see a lot of research papers testing religious beliefs, and why research organisations are generally unwilling to say openly what most of their members have long concluded. But that is a very understandable tactical consideration, not a methodological one.

    Massimo Pigliucci:

    because “science” has decided that there is no God, surely you can point me to a number of high profile papers in Nature or Science that clearly shows how such a conclusion was arrived at, scientifically

    Would you agree with a claim like “science has shown that the world is not a flat disc resting on the back of four elephants”? (Or would you say that is going too far, perhaps because a flat-earther could redefine and goal-post-move and obfuscate “flat disc” so that science is incapable of arriving at that conclusion, and it needs a philosopher to parachute in?)

    I tentatively assume you would agree with the claim. But the thing is, what if somebody asks you to provide even just one peer reviewed paper in Nature or Science from the last 30 years that directly addresses the flat earth hypothesis and demonstrates it to be false with a simple double-blind laboratory experiment? And note that all the thousands of papers merely showing that the world is approximately spherical don’t count, because apparently from your perspective all the thousands of papers routinely providing natural explanations for all the stuff that demons and gods used to explain don’t count as science in favour of the no-gods position either. Where does this logic lead?

    Note that this was my fifth comment, I’m out.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. DBHolmes
    “To everyone knocking Coel, I think people are missing his point regarding science’s limited relation to morality, of which I largely agree. ….But to me there is no problem with saying science can only provide a descriptive account (studying the nature of morality in humans/animals) or provide practical information to enhance one’s own moral choices (if you feel X is good, here is the fastest/easiest way to attain it)”

    Coel is saying much more than science has a limited relaltion to morality. He is saying science encompasses all domains of knowledge. That is why he is being criticized.

    You might think he is right regarding moral anti-realism. And indeed you make some excellent arguments for your position in your blog. But wouldn’t you agree that your arguments are not science? Even your view that “science can only provide a descriptive account” of morality is not itself a scientific conclusion. You reach those views from reasoning but there is very little by way of observable data/evidence that you can show someone who disagrees with you. I don’t pretend I can fully define science, but generally it involves matters where observable data *can* be determinative.

    I don’t think people who disagree with Coel are necessarily rejecting moral anti-realism. I think they are just saying that accepting or rejecting it is not a matter of science.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Hi Imad Zaheer, I understand that was what people were concerned with. I just think the situation is not as dire as people are making out. The idea that an objective set of moral norms is counterfactual, does not mean there are no ethical debates that will occur or should occur. It simply reduces their scope from discussions of what everyone ought to do because X is an abstract moral truth in the universe, to discussing what our best options are given the ethical interests which exist within the population(s) under consideration. In that case championing one’s position is not hypocritical in and of itself.

    Perhaps it would be less confusing if in this statement…

    Terms such as “should” and “ought” don’t mean anything in the abstract, they only mean something in relation to specified goals. Thus the whole search for “moral facts” or a prescriptive morality that tells us “what we should do” is a delusion.

    …he had chosen the term “universal or objective prescriptive morality” as his target, and instead of championing “descriptive morality” discussed “subjective or conditional prescriptive morality”?

    I believe Coel agrees that we can derive prescriptive statements of what individuals should or should not do, once given their specified ethical desires/tastes. It is just that they are internal desires not external, objective facts about the world (in the abstract), so one can view this action as describing what a person should do given an understanding (and so description) of their interests. But yeah that is something different than describing how morality functions in society (commonly understood as descriptive morality), and it is something I should watch out for in my own discussions.

    In the end Coel is a moral anti-realist of the relativist/subjectivist variety and not a nihilist. We hashed that out in a previous thread.

    Hi schlafly, fair enough, I took that to be an excuse and not an explanation. Though it does seem damning to anyone calling themselves a sceptic.

    blockquoteA lot of Western leftist atheist intellectuals have a strange reluctance to criticize Islam.

    Other than claims by certain individuals this is the case I haven’t seen evidence that a lot of left atheist intellectuals are reluctant to criticize militant Islam or tenets of the religion. It seems more like they don’t criticize in the way these certain individuals want. One isn’t “reluctant” to criticize just because one fails to reach the level of hyperbole and overgeneralization of someone else’s criticism.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hi Michael Faulkner, regarding your comment to Coel, concepts such as well being and happiness are too vague to have real meaning. Indeed it is the fact that so many people have different concepts of these things that leads to the ethical dilemmas we face. While he is a relativist, Coel is not a nihilist. Your mentioning health as a value in medicine is apt but (like Harris) misses the fact that there are many different concepts of health, and no arguable “right” ones outside of very extreme cases.

    You ask Massimo where his evidence is that Sam is influential. If he isn’t, why do you care what anyone thinks about him? He certainly seems to have influenced you in some way, correct?

    Indeed, what is the reason they should debate if it would have no impact because Sam (or his arguments) influence no one?

    I can’t say anything about your concern regarding tone. But I haven’t seen anything taken out of context or misrepresented regarding Sam’s arguments. In fact all of this seems ironic since Sam’s tone is usually adversarial and he clearly misrepresents arguments he is dealing with (Hume, Dennett, and Chomsky are great examples). And it is confusing to see this charge against Massimo, yet you end asking for a debate because he might be able to push Sam on issues?

    Earlier you questioned why there were so many essays on here about Sam, without noticing that the majority were in response to current self-promotional campaigns by Sam. If he stopped promoting poor arguments with media campaigns perhaps there would be less reason to discuss his ideas?

    Harris is usually very willing to debate people

    This is patently untrue. His debates have so far been limited to people that will raise his visibility. I mean he famously did not debate anyone in his own contest to have a debate with him. As one might get a sense here (and from his contest), there is a line of philosophers and scientists willing to challenge him. It’s not like he can be blind to this.

    As it is, if he were interested in such a debate, why didn’t he come here already? It’s unlikely Sam doesn’t know this place exists, given that Blackford (the judge in his contest) replied in the thread on my essay.

    I guess I agree that Massimo should probably drop the guy’s arguments as a topic. Until Sam is willing to engage publically about them, or show any belief in them himself, what is the point? It is frustrating seeing someone become a celebrity representative of a field he has basically done no real (quality) work in, but that is the nature of fame and the current media culture.

    Unfortunately as I said, he keeps promoting himself and his ideas as representative of whatever (science, philosophy, skepticism, atheism) creating some onus to push back where one can. From your own observation debate already exists on his arguments, it is Sam who is absent.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. cjwinstead: “It seems that moral reasoning has features similar to mathematics. It is driven by a desire to minimize contradiction and dissonance between intuition and implication.”

    If there is a domain of morality, then a (domain-specific) language for it might be paraconsistent.

    Mapping the Moral Domain
    Paraconsistent Logics and Paraconsistency

    A final comment (from the pragmatic-linguistic side): Suppose a (sufficient?) language for the physics domain is one that can express field (electromagnetic, quantum, relativistic, …) equations . But is a field-equations language a sufficient language for the moral domain? I would tend to think it would be a difficult task to make it one, but someone could propose a solution, I guess.


  21. Coel

    Conclusions that there is no normative morality follows from the total lack of evidence for it, the fact that for millennia philosophers have tried to make a coherent moral-realist scheme and failed, and the fact that we have no conception of how moral realism would even be meaningful.

    Lack of “empirical” evidence that presupposes that morality is a descriptive notion only, the same question being begged yet again.

    As for philosophers failing to come up with a coherent system, there has been plenty of progress in moral philosophy. Sure new dilemma’s have come up and challenges remain but this is hardly a problem for a falliblist position that see’s inquiry as on-going and revisable.

    Also, I’d be curious what your criticism are of Derek Parfit’s triple theory of morality, which is current big contender in furthering the argument for objective morality. I’m sure you’ve read all about it as well as other contemporary moral philosophy with your bold claims about morality.

    Further, the only version of morals that clearly exists — namely, our feelings on how we treat each other — is much better explained as evolutionary programming to facilitate cooperative living.

    Only if you choose to define morality as mere expressions of our feelings and not rational inquiry on what we ought or ought not to do. The religious can choose to define morality as only what God says, others can choose to define morality as decisions made based on many gummy bears someone has. Simply defining it in the way you like it doesn’t get you very far.

    That idea is anti-realist since even if there were realist morals then Darwinian evolution would have no way of knowing about or caring about them.

    This is an odd statement, you seem to think if objective morality exists, it would be in particles waiting for physicists to smash together and find the answer “thou shall not kill” (again assuming it’s only descriptive or some law of nature). Evolution does play a role, including shaping us into social creatures, giving us emotions and also, ability for think, use language and engage in rational inquiry. All of those things come together to form morality.


    I don’t think the situation is “dire” nor do I think relativist or subjectivists are not in a position to make moral claims. I myself use to be a relativist about morality and I think there are some really good arguments for the position.

    Coel, however, is not presenting those arguments and as others pointed out, his insistence that somehow science proves his position as relativist (or whatever it is), is just plain wrong. That is the main contention here. Notice how he failed to provide any scientific evidence for his claim when asked.

    Liked by 4 people

  22. I am a lifelong scientismist since I strongly believe that science can inform all aspects of what it means to be human. But I am a weak member of the cause because metaphysics is an integral part of the human: our ability to create, innovate, fantasize, understand and choose ‘freely’. Biology (science) provides ample support of this, in my view. Our metaphysical faculties have evolved like all our other biological features.

    Scientists themselves are fully aware that there are boundaries to what they can study. Much information is not observable and can not be addressed by empirical methods. (Gods certainly may be unobservable.) A second, and more immediate problem, is that science is slow and laborious and, sometimes, very confused. It also proceeds mostly through hard ‘reductionist’ approaches. Science is therefore of very little use when an urgent problem arises that requires immediate assessment and action. This is especially true if the problem is complicated. All humans then rely on intuition and emotion.

    So yes, there does appear to be a demarcation but the line will always be blurry and shifting. Uninformed human beings will cling to their prejudices, no matter what, and these individuals appear to represent the vast majority. (There almost certainly is a biological explanation for this, e.g. sticking together and surviving as a group.) But no one can claim possession of the truth to the exclusion of others, the best we can do is to calmly engage in the battle of ideas. Too often, emotions flow out onto the streets and battlefields.

    Being smart, entertaining and political like Harris certainly contributes to one’s reputation and influence. Being right is not sufficient!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Coel

    Earlier I made the point, a rather obvious one I would say, that that a plausible system of ethics will require an explicit metaphysical theory for its grounding axioms.

    You replied that this is “just a philosopher’s approach, rigidly segregating metaphysics! A much better way of understanding human ethics is in terms of where they came from, Darwinian evolution.”

    This is the price you pay for cold-shouldering philosophy, that you becomes victim to any old view that appeals to your temperament and feel no need to examine it. If you genuinely cannot see that your view of ethics is based on a wild and unproven assumption then it would be astonishing to me.

    Note that I ask for logical justification for an ethical theory, whatever the theory may be, while you ask only that I believe yours for explicitly non-logical reasons. .

    It is a philosopher’s approach, and this is why it must be taken. One chooses the tools appropriate to the job if one has any sense. At any rate, one should not replace thoughtful analysis with dogmatic beliefs and then argue that this is a scientific approach. This does nobody any favours. least of all science, albeit that it seems a popular pastime. .

    Its not a question of taking a scientific OR philosophical approach. This is a ridiculous idea and massively counter-productive. On this I would agree with Sam Harris and feel he makes a useful point. The task is to join up the dots, not to sort them into categories. The phrase ‘natural philosophy’ still seems a useful one to me, and also ‘scienta’. Regardless, there’s nothing anybody can do to change things. Any less than superficial intellectual study of ethics will be an investigation of metaphysics, and that’s just the way it is,

    This is it for my comments quota. Thanks to SciSal and all for another fascinating discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. You must use the physicalism Coel!

    You and I are rebel theorists who consider all of reality to have a physical connection with itself. Nevertheless, “The Empire” cannot be defeated through a scientism that isn’t strengthened by means of a completed circle. You must then use the physicalism to build an ideology to describe that which is good/bad for any given conscious individual or society. Only after our cause has a true ideology from which to function, might science indeed prevail!

    Darth Paul Paolini has challenged you (, but your response was weak ( Without a true ideology, yes you certainly might irritate The Empire, but shall never defeat it. Do not forget that you were once an idealistic man who did have a true ideology ( Apparently The Empire robbed you of it, and while I’m sure that you fought mightily to validate utilitarianism, in the end it would seem that you gave it up as “immoral.” Fortunately if anything I presume that the experience only strengthened your physicalism (since you did then become a physics professor). Today you fight the dualistic hegemony which seperates philosophy from science, though without being able to fully use the physicalism.

    I must implore you to complete your circle of science once again, and thus reclaim your utilitarianism! Tell master Paolini that you are of course no general nihilist, but rather a moral nihilist. This “morality” stuff is not a useful term from which to describe our nature, but instead a social tool which we employ given our selfishness/utilitarianism — we naturally want OTHERS to not act selfishly, and so in these efforts we attempt to convince them that WE are unselfish/moral. Once there is a substantial group on our side (theorists that consider what we are rather than what we would like ourselves to be) our movement should create a solid foundation from which non primitive studies of psychology, psychiatry, sociology, cognitive science and so on, can rest. But until we “complete the circle,” or present a useful physical model regarding good/bad for the conscious entity, our cause shall continue flounder.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. No. Just as, if a liking for chocolate were universal, that would still not establish that liking as being independent of human feelings.

    That’s a poor argument. The idea that there’s a moral reality is just the idea that we couldn’t be any other way morally — so both universal and necessary. The reality of that has nothing to do with feelings (although emotions are one of the ways in which a moral reality is made manifest).

    If we all *necessarily* and universally liked chocolate, it would be because of the way we are structured as organisms. If we all *happened* to like chocolate, but it wasn’t necessary, then it would be a different story.

    You keep claiming that you’re not trying to make moral “feelings” seem arbitrary, but you keep choosing examples like chocolate that are arbitrary in that they’re not connected to any structural reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Hi Alex SL

    Sadly I can only repeat what I wrote before, and what you decided to ignore…

    As I very clearly pointed out before, your remarks were addressed to something that I never said.

    So obviously there was no point in addressing them.

    I am puzzled as to why, even after I had pointed this out, you felt the need to “sadly” repeat your response to something that I never said.

    I can only “sadly” reiterate that I still didn’t say it.

    Again, I did not say that science cannot show that there is no God, perhaps it can. It is just that I have yet to see this happen

    …in favour of dismissing Stenger’s use of standard scientific reasoning as not good enough:

    I am sorry if I gave the impression that I saw any good at all in.Stenger’s arguments, clearly my “makes William Lane Craig sound brilliant ” remark carried some unintended subtlety.

    I am saying they are not good, full stop. Even when he picks an easy target like biblical literalism he sometimes misses the mark. If you can’t bag scriptural literalism you are doing it wrong.

    If this is what is allowed to pass muster as “scientific reasoning” these days then science is in big trouble.

    He may have been.a very good scientist, but, as I.often point out, being a good scientist does not make anyone an expert on.everything. The idea, that scientists have a greater commitment to objectivity and rigour outside of their area of expertise compared to any reasonably intelligent layperson, is something of a myth.

    Liked by 2 people

  27. Coel,

    because ethics always occurs in community, it follows that there cannot be a “subjective” ethics. (Which smacks of a clandestine Cartesianism – as well as libertarianism; if ethics are determined by our feelings, it’s a short step to claim we do what we feel, one definition of free will).

    As always, you quote isolated remarks you think you can counter, rather than linked propositions and their implicit arguments. I’ll merely quote what you ignored:

    “(G)eneralized discussions of social norms we wish to live with will always involve – necessarily – the language of normativity – what we ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to do. It doesn’t matter whether we engage such a discussion in the academy or in the streets – it will be a discussion about ethics, and not meta-ethics. Your claim is that science can provide us a meta-ethic that makes discussion of normative ethics unnecessary and in some way undesirable. My counter-claim is to point out that people will continue to discuss normative ethics, because that is an inevitable social discourse. Consequently, no ethical position – realist, non-realist, or anti-realist – can be ruled out by fiat. Nor can such be redefined in scientific (or scientistic) terms (as we see with Harris) without obvious intention to close off debate rather than engage in it.”

    Coel, like it or not, you’re going to use normative ethics language when discussing concrete ethics (that’s what Massimo remarks you are shy of doing), because there’s no other way to discuss ethics in community.

    I’m a pragmatist, somewhat more ethically relativistic than you make out to be. I’ve no ‘realist’ morality ax to grind, and not even sure what that means, in the same way that I’ve difficulty conceiving mathematical platonism. But the fact is that socially determined ethics is discussed, and so functions, *as if* it were somehow embedded in reality – even if that ‘reality’ is simply a matter of law. We don’t stop for red lights because it ‘feels good,’ but because it’s an expectation of the social reality in which we live – and the police will remind us of that should we prefer a separate reality.

    One problem with your “feelings” standard, is that it’s an absolute – thus your meta-ethical emotivism is an absolutist ethic and will operate in much the same way as a ‘moral realist ethics’ (one reason I know I’m more of a relativist than you).

    (As a secular Buddhist, my only standard is ‘cessation of suffering,’ but this can take many forms. Otherwise, my sense of ‘right and wrong’ is completely culturally bound, except insofar as it is informed by knowledge of other cultures.)

    Your meta-ethics functions rhetorically in the same way as Harris’ scientism – an effort to close down discussion. In a culture with democratic aspirations, that cannot succeed.

    Ethics is determined by community, with all its opposing views (realist, non-realist), and not by subjective feelings or by science. Origins, whether in god or evolution, inform differing positions – but are never decisive.

    Liked by 2 people

  28. From a current NY Times op-ed:

    DO physicists need empirical evidence to confirm their theories? …

    Implicit in such a maneuver is a philosophical question: How are we to determine whether a theory is true if it cannot be validated experimentally? Should we abandon it just because, at a given level of technological capacity, empirical support might be impossible? If not, how long should we wait for such experimental machinery before moving on: ten years? Fifty years? Centuries? …

    Are superstrings and the multiverse, painstakingly theorized by hundreds of brilliant scientists, anything more than modern-day epicycles?

    Not even that. Epicycles were useful and observable.


  29. Coel #1
    labnut: “I gave you the list of moral problems from the NY Times Ethicist column.
    Coel: “Exactly, you waved airily at large websites,

    Your reply is plainly and provably wrong. I gave you an exact reference to a prestigious column specialising in moral questions. The Ethicist column contains a great number of actual, non-trivial, real-world, moral problems/questions that really are encountered in real life. (phew, so much tautology, so many reals, my English lecturer would be aghast, but it serves a rhetorical purpose)

    If your claim that science can solve moral problems/answer moral questions had any substance this would be the perfect place to test your claim. After all, this is what real life moral problems/questions actually do look like. If science cannot answer such questions, then what is the point? Obviously then there are places that science cannot go. Making excuses about shouldness and realism does not change the stark fact that you have admitted that there are major areas of knowledge barred to science. What then are we to make of your expansive claim about a single body of unified knowledge, open, without exception, to science? Once you start making exceptions, your single, unified sphere of knowledge looks remarkably like Swiss cheese.

    And it doesn’t matter what assumptions there are because you have made expansive, all embracing claims about a unified body of knowledge which is entirely open to explanation by science, with no exemptions.

    If science cannot answer these moral questions then the conclusion is unavoidable, that there are categories of knowledge that cannot be addressed by science. Making excuses about moral realism and the mythical ‘absolute shouldness scale’ is simply an indirect way of admitting that there are questions that science cannot answer.

    Oh yes, my Moral Guidance App will be called SAM. It will run on all well known platforms and it is planned to make it loadable into the ultimate platform, the human brain. SAM will be part of the HARRIS family of apps.
    SAM = Science Activated Morality
    HARRIS = Heuristic Algorithms Retreading Rubbish Into Science.
    We have an infinite resource of intellectual rubbish and Sam Harris has determined to mine these riches for the greater benefit of mankind.

    Disclaimer, SAM has nothing to do with the Harris Corporation, an ethically dubious company(ironically) –

    I attend to your last argument in my next comment.

    Liked by 2 people

  30. Coel #2,
    The point is that if you ask a question that assumes moral realism
    assumes that there is some Absolute Shouldness Scale
    and that *any* quest for a prescriptive moral-realist scheme that tells you what you “should do” is misconceived.

    Your final retreat is to claim there are no questions to answer, that, in your opinion, it is a category error since “should do” is misconceived.“. With this airy wave of the hand(hah, touché) you have dismissed the most profound and deeply embedded intuition in the human race, our ability to distinguish fact from value, to make normative distinctions. It is at the heart of our aesthetic and moral experiences, which define our lives.

    You better have a good reason to dismiss something so profound and deeply embedded. Has science made this determination? How have you arrived at this conclusion? We already know that science can answer everything(well, except moral questions) so you had better be able to produce a scientific answer to this all important question. Some peer reviewed papers would be helpful!

    The problem with your stance is that it is shot through with the normative thinking that you reject. The very moment you start to justify your act utilitarianism you are forced to start using the ‘should’ statements you reject. The goals of act utilitarianism cannot be expressed without using ‘should’ statements. This is exactly the problem highlighted so clearly by Hume. Remove the normative phrases from your justification and you are left with gibberish. Retain the normative phrases and you are left with a framework that cannot be solved by science, as you have admitted. For example, justify your reply to this question using science and no normative language: which ethical framework, deontology, virtue ethics, or utilitarianism, is the correct framework to use? Even the question contains an implied should.

    That is the heart of your problem, you are making profoundly contradictory claims, you are arguing against ‘shouldness’ by using implicit ‘should’ statements. You cannot defeat normativity without appealing to normativity, which makes the argument nonsense. With a bit of verbal sleight of hand you hope the problem will go away. But it doesn’t, because this is a community of philosophers who insist on rigorous reasoning.

    I challenged you to show that science can answer moral questions. You failed.
    You dodged the question by denying ‘shouldness’.
    Very well, in that case I have a new challenge for you. Use science and the purely factual language of science to show that ‘shouldness‘ or “moral-realist scheme that tells you what you “should do”” is “misconceived.

    My challenge is for you to demonstrate your claimed truth by using the language and methodology of science without the use of any normative language(since you reject it). This is the reason for my heavily ironical example of a SAM HARRIS app. To satisfy my challenge you must ultimately express the answer as either 1) an algorithm or 2) a rigorous deductive argument containing no normative language, which is simply another kind of algorithm.

    Good luck.

    Liked by 3 people

  31. Hi Asher and ejwinner,

    We seem to be disagreeing about definitions:

    “Moral realism (or Moral Objectivism) is the meta-ethical view that there exist such things as moral facts and moral values, and that these are objective and independent of our perception of them or our beliefs, feelings or other attitudes towards them”. (Added bolding.)

    If certain feelings are universal (held by every extant life-form) that still does not make them “objective”, they are still “subjective” by the very definition of the word, because they are feelings.

    Objective morals (moral realism) need to be entirely independent of anyone’s feelings. My sole point here is that such a notion is nonsensical, because morals *are* feelings that evolution has programmed into us.

    We’re programmed with feelings of pain (to protect our body) and aesthetic feelings (e.g. liking of food but disgust at putrid meat) and sexual feelings (for obvious reasons) and nurturing feelings towards children (ditto) and moral feelings about human interactions (to enable a cooperative ecological niche).

    From there the burden of proof is on anyone arguing for moral realism (ditto unicorns).

    And no, PeterJ, I am not starting from metaphysical axioms (which is never a helpful approach), but from a scientific understanding of what humans are and where we came from (i.e. evolution).

    ejwinner, I wasn’t ignoring your previous post, I was agreeing with it. Of course social interactions and working out ethics with each other is of supreme importance to us, and of course this is done in the language of normative imperatives which derive from our human feelings.

    Subjective is not the same as “individual” (any more than universal => objective); morals that derive from feelings are ipso facto subjective (and thus anti-realist), even if they’re worked out communally.

    Morals are evolved feelings about human interactions; from that statement no prescriptions follow; that sorts meta-ethics.

    But the whole domain of ethics (as opposed to meta-ethics) is still open, and humans have to work that out communally, based on everyone’s feelings and values.

    Deontological ethics, consequentialist ethics and virtue ethics are all partially right as descriptions about how humans think and feel, but the search for a prescriptive version of such theories is a category error.

    Hi Joe,

    I’ve no space to reply about cartesian skepticism, but see here if interested.

    As for Bart Ehrman’s claim that history is unlike science because history only happens once, that sort of thing is often claimed but it totally wrong. Many sciences deal with one-off events and historical contingency, e.g., geology, paleontology, and cosmology. Take the K–T extinction and the Chicxulub impact; no-one has ever suggested that that is outside the scope of science owing to it happening only once. Science is pragmatic, if it only has one event to study it just does its best with that one event.

    And finally (fifth and out!), dear labnut, I do agree that my position runs counter to human intuition (which is moral realist), but that in itself is no real argument.

    Liked by 2 people

  32. Morality is one area of learning that I think is clearly not scientific. But there are others and I am not sure how those who make claims like “science encompasses all knowledge” would address them either. Let me give some examples:

    1) I believe there is a bird in my backyard because I see a bird in my back yard. Am I doing science when I form beliefs simply from direct observation?

    2) I believe my brother went to a party last night because he said he went to a party. Is that belief formed due to science? Now you might say my belief is not “justified” if it is based on his mere testimony. (I would disagree) But then I will say what if 3 other people also say he was at a party. And I believe for that reason. Is that science? As I add more witnesses you will either be forced to admit we really can know very little about history, or you will say it is science, or you will change your view.

    If both of these are “science” then I have to echo Robin Herbert and say that we should then think of a new word for what I used to think was “science.“ Because I think there is something to the old school view of science that deserves its own term.

    Coel, Alex is saying that lack of evidence when we would reasonably expect to see some evidence can be grounds for saying something doesn’t exist. This works well when we are talking about unicorns, or literal gigantic tortoises that hold up the earth. So when Gagarin went in space and could see around the earth he presumably would have seen these tortoises holding up the earth. But I doubt many who believe in God were troubled by his not seeing God. I don’t think they reasonably expected that.

    Whether God’s hiddenness is really a reason to not believe in him is a going involve a person’s background beliefs about what evidence they would expect. And this varies quite a bit. It will also to some extent depend on their beliefs about the likelihood of past showings (e.g., miracles) actually happening. But it would be possible for someone to believe in God even if they think he never yet performed a miracle or gave us evidence. If you think that would make God, irrelevant then I think you are mistaken.

    BTW I view my views about God in a similar way as my views about real morality. I might concede that there is very little in the way of evidence but I am not sure I should expect more. Therefore the lack of evidence loses some of it’s force.

    Now I think reasonable minds can disagree on what sort of evidence we should expect. That is why I do not think people who say there is insufficient evidence to believe in God (or real morality) are unreasonable. But I do think these positions have some other problems.


  33. There may be another way to look at this ptolemaic epicycle of debate on science v. philosophy.

    The default approach is to engage in adversarial debate, sort of like a trial. Participants choose sides, marshal the evidence and then launch into battle. The last man standing wins. Hail to Caesar! The losers, if they are lucky, skulk home, perhaps to fight another day. But wait, this cycle of victory and defeat has been going on for a few billion years. Yikes! It must be in our genes! It is real, does that mean we are consigned to this for ever?

    For some ‘physicalists’ this could theoretically point in the direction of eugenics. The offending warrior genes should be extirpated, rendering the species more peaceful. This was actually attempted in the early part of the 20th century through the extermination of weak or harmful races – hints of similar thinking persist today. (This is mentioned just to remind us that any crazy idea can become main stream; human history may in fact be the succession of one crazy idea after another – groups of ‘metaphysicians’ who think they know what they are talking about grab hold of the levers of power with dire consequences.)

    Can we escape the epicycle forged by the blind action of our genes? Our not identifying all those little nucleotidal monsters enables them to do their nefarious work uninhibited. But praise to all our benign little genes that occasionally impel us to do good things. Of course, we have come thus far; a helluva success story, just too bloody for my liking.

    My simplified take on this great debate is to hope that science can continue to inform us about ourselves and that we can benefit from what is learned. A better understanding of 1. the human AND 2. the world must be an essential underpinning in our metaphysical quest for a better society (3.). Improving the level of performance of each uniquely valuable individual is the only way forward.

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  34. Coel,

    You must have run out of space, I’ll look forward to you writing on your blog with those scientific studies where science proves that normativity does not exist and not to mention your thorough critique of Derek Parfit’s arguments.

    Sarcasm aside, it’s not very hard to think of morality independent of feelings. I don’t know how many moral courses you’ve taken or books you’ve read, but rarely if ever does find moral reasoning to include “Because I feel this is right, there this is what we should do”.

    Now lets look at the definition of objective that does’t presuppose a very specific type of moral realism (shockingly if you read the literature moral realism/anti-realism is not limited to a simple dichotomy any more than metaphysical realism/antirealism or scientific realism/anti-realism are):

    “impartiality, absence/lack of bias, absence/lack of prejudice, fairness, fair-mindedness, neutrality, evenhandedness, justice, open-mindedness, disinterest, detachment, dispassion, neutrality”

    There is nothing that in that definition that stops moral reasoning from being objective as people don’t argue from a biased, prejudiced, unfair manner in moral philosophy in which you think morality is (I want this therefore it’s right). Instead, saying “X is the right thing to do” requires argumentation to back it up that are precisely objective, argued from a neutral position and independent of personal feelings.

    Now to be fair, there will be times where the questions will be hard to answer or have no answer at all. Others, will have multiple answers (plurality of goods). None of this takes away from objectivity in morality once you get away from a cartoonish notion of morality has to be a brute fact of nature (purely descriptive), waiting for the physicists to find by experimentation or it doesn’t exist at all.

    Liked by 2 people

  35. Again, I have no ‘moral realist’ ax to grind, so I’ll let your first remark pass. I’ll agree that I can’t see how feelings can be removed from ethical considerations in that way; but by the same token, I’ve the same problem with reducing all ethics to feelings. The ground of my own case has always been the complexity of the human social experience. Ethics can only arise within that experience; a robust ethical theory must therefore give a good accounting of it.

    As to the definition of subjectivity you offer: Cartesianism and Libertarianism fit comfortably in the definition you cite, and they are also universalist claims on human behavior. What you need to do here is provide a discussion of subjectivity that would unravel your usage from theirs. Philosophical discussion of subjectivity has been underway for centuries now. However, Darwin didn’t solve that problem, probably never addressed it.

    My point that you ignored, partly supported by labnut’s second comment to you, is that at some point in any ethical discussion concerning actual human practices, normative prescriptive sentences will be used. The problem with your meta-ethics is that you ‘can’t get there from here.’ Your case lacks description of how these feelings you claim become the ethical theories that are then investigated in philosophy and end up on the street in political discourse. Your emotivism cannot explain how our ‘feelings’ get translated into injunctions for others or for society as a whole.

    (Hint: developing theories with prescriptive power may be a necessary part of such a process.)

    (It should be remembered here that Emotivism began as an explanation for why Logical Positivist philosophers weren’t talking about ethics, and why they thought ethics, politics, religion, etc., were not proper fields for philosophic inquiry, since it was supposed such fields involved language not open to truth-determination. If your meta-ethics frequently sounds as if it closes down discussions, that may be because its philosophic foundation was designed to do just that.)

    You’ve contributed quite a bit to this discussion, albeit not as you may have hoped. You’ve effectively stood in for Sam Harris, which is why you’ve elicited such response.

    Although your conclusions concerning ethics are very different from (even opposed to) Harris’, both of you, by relying on science alone, make many of the same mistakes: engaging in philosophy while insisting it is science; inability to properly distinguish nuanced differences between categories under consideration; lack of insight into epistemologic foundations to your theories; little grasp of the history of the philosophic discussions of such theories; reluctance to take the discussion into the real world of human society and politics; unwitting deployment of rhetoric rather than reason to achieve a superior discursive position to acquire claim to adjudication of differences.

    Scientism has achieved popularity among intellectuals, largely because most intellectuals have learned to trust science. But much of the discourse of scientism reveals itself as substantially unsophisticated under close analysis. Its sweeping promises ought to be greeted skeptically at best.

    Liked by 4 people

  36. Schlafly, thanks for that reference to Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser’s article: ‘A Crisis at the Edge of Physics’.

    That article referred to an article by yet another Ellis, George Ellis and Joe Silk – ‘Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics’. Which brings to mind that infamous article by Sean Carroll, suggesting that the principle of verifiability might be abandoned in certain kinds of physics.

    What is going on here? I think there are three things happening, 1) science is meeting boundaries, 2) these boundaries have disconcerting ideological implications and 3) ideologues are reacting by trying to do an end run to circumvent the boundaries.

    1. Science is meeting boundaries.
    We are confronted by boundaries at the outer edge of the universe and at the low entropy beginning of the universe. There are high energy boundaries and there are boundaries at the quantum level. Other boundaries look increasingly likely, that we cannot understand consciousness, that we cannot replicate the start of life, that we cannot bridge the fact/value divide or the syntax/semantics divide. Strong emergence may yet be another boundary. The greatest boundary of all, the origin of the laws of nature is also beyond our grasp. One boundary lies within ourselves, we cannot explain how it is possible that we exercise free will. The final boundary may be also in ourselves, we are anosognosic.

    2. Boundaries have disconcerting implications.
    First, it is a body blow to the claims of scientismists. The existence of boundaries means that some things cannot be explained by science, RIP the unified sphere of knowledge. Will their hubris survive?
    Second, it undermines the western concept that everything is ultimately rational. This creates space for counterknowledge to flourish(bad) and also space for eastern philosophies(good).
    Third, it is a body blow to atheism. Atheism has depended on two ideas, that science will uncover everything, leaving no place for God and that science will explain origins, making God unnecessary. Both of atheism’s foundational assumptions are being undermined.
    Fourth, instead of the world looking simpler, it is looking increasingly weird.
    Fifth, as a consequence, understanding the world will require a deeper, more complex and nuanced approach. Philosophy provides the tools for this.

    3. Ideologues are reacting by trying to do an end run around good science.
    They do this in two ways:
    One, by changing the rules so that speculative hypotheses can be admitted as good science.
    Two, by creating vast edifices of speculative ideas and presenting them as good science.

    This can only be done by sacrificing that most essential of all the attributes of science, its integrity. This is why George Ellis and Joe Silk titled their paper “Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics

    It should be understood that compromising scientific method is fundamentally dishonest. Passing off unsupported claims as science is blatantly dishonest. Science is facing a moral crisis and philosophy has the duty to examine and expose the morality of bad science.

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  37. Hi Paul,
    Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape): “Controversies about human values are controversies about which science officially has no opinion.”

    Paul So: “How is this (that morality is within the domain of science) possible, exactly? After all, science deals with facts not values.”

    Paul, in saying this you presuppose that morality is never factual. The concept of Morality maybe is a meta-physical Virtue, but its influence on human behaviour, which Morality can regulate, is on a physical activity, and the effects of human behaviour on humans are facts. They can be observed and reasoned about and this is where science begins to have some legitimate leverage.

    The Demarcation Problem is not Sam’s concern. It is a typical philosophical quicksand like arguing over what is a heap. It arises from human language being for the most part rough, non-binary, -which is why computers with their binary language struggle with it. A pure gas is either hydrogen or it is not, but most of our human words and communication are less, often far less, concrete and depends very heavily on context and construction -even on facial expression- and then further depend on the recipient’s individual experience, resulting in approximative meanings -the best that can be gleaned from natural language. Thus achieving the transmission (with greater or lesser success) of information from one brain to another.

    Hence these many Commenters, none of whom seem to have difficulty with their own meaning for science yet none have attempted to define it, because of course “science” is a wildly non-binary word that encompasses a multitude of rightly accepted interpretations. To attempt to separate science from something else called pseudo-science by argument is a purely academic exercise, attempts to define precisely the linguistically imprecise. (Perhaps pseudo-philosophy or Philosophism?)

    photojack53 (Jun5;6.10pm): “..ethics, morals and even the vaunted trait of altruism ALL evolved in the animal kingdom, millions of years before man evolved or ANY religions existed, it sort of blows holes in the argument that religion has exclusivity in the moral realm.” I strongly agree but I would go further and say it blows holes also in saying ethics and morals exist exclusively as entirely subjective human values.

    Parental Love maybe a Virtue but parental care is a physical fact and may be observed and compared, effects noted of differing levels of efficacy in the lives of children: such “facts” may be reasoned about to derive some normative rules. The level of care provided by any one pair of parents’ subjective moral opinions may not greatly affect the future of the whole human race but the affect on the future of their dependent child and immediate neighbours could be enormous. (Anti-vaxers are alive and well!). Maybe of less moral importance overall but of vital moral importance on the personal level.

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  38. The avoidance of scientists to inquire about morale questions scientifically leaves all the space in question of morality to religious or non-religious preachers, politicians and other kind of falsifiers. Education and scientific training seems to create people with higher integrity than any other activity of human intellect. It is probably caused by scientific method that doubt in everything is in its essence. Yet morality is about being right without doubt. The major question to be asked is, how to bridge between these two methods of thought.


  39. mogguy comments:”‘ethics, morals and even the vaunted trait of altruism ALL evolved’ …blows holes also in saying ethics and morals exist exclusively as entirely subjective human values.” Life introduced the property of having value – those properties of the environment that organisms need to maximize in order to continue.Value can be seen as relative and egocentric – prey is valuable to an individual predator, but not to a herbivore, but also at the more diffuse level of the propagation of genes in time or the persistence of the processes of life. So, it can be seen simultaneously at a subjective or at an objective level. Obviously, value to social organisms is distributed through the cultural machine, and now has an abstract representation.


  40. Coel,

    “Objective morals (moral realism) need to be entirely independent of anyone’s feelings. My sole point here is that such a notion is nonsensical, because morals *are* feelings that evolution has programmed into us.”

    Your being a scientist, I’m surprised you’re not bothered by the explanatory inadequacies of equating morality with feelings.

    Consider the case of fairness, which is a moral concept. Is the matter of whether something is unfair just a matter of people’s feelings about it?

    Suppose on the basis of an agreement an employee toils for a month in a hot field, doing a good job, then the employer, who has plenty of money, refuses to pay the employee. Would you agree that the employer’s action is unfair? Would you agree that behaving unfairly is unethical? If you say yes to these questions, how do you explain what’s going here in terms of emotional states?

    In my view, the word ‘unfair’ has a meaning such that it applies or does not apply to situations regardless of how anyone feels about. In this way, unfairness represents a class of objective moral facts. They are objective facts in the sense that a situation fits the meaning of ‘unfair’ or does not regardless of our feelings about it.

    I think morality is objectively factual in this way to an extent broader than fairness. Fairness happens to be a case in which such objective factuality is easier to see. Such objectivity, in my view, is just a special case of the objectivity that permeates moral phenomena.

    So if you want to argue against moral objectivity in a more effective way, you might try explaining how it is that whether the word ‘unfair’ applies to a situation is systemically dependent on people’s emotional states. That would be an interesting theory.

    To suggest the broader objectivity in morality, I think analysis of language can support the view that the word ‘unethical’ means something like an unjustifiable resolution of opposing interests. Fairness would be a special case of this. But, like ‘knowledge’, ‘unethical’ has a meaning that is hard to fully disclose. Still, we mean something by it, and in many we cases we can be certain that it applies or does not. Given this, moral objectivity isn’t a matter of the strange facts, but just a matter of words fitting a case or not.

    As a final point, some here have said that human well-being is the end of ethics. While concern with human well-being certainly influenced the development or our ethical thought, the subject matter of ethics is closer to fairness than to human well-being. If one looks at cases such as fairness, one will see that questions of human well-being are beside the point. Consider stealing, for instance. While generally a prohibition on stealing is good for society, the wrongness of stealing more on notions of rights and violations of rights rather than appeals to considerations of well-being. That is, stealing is wrong because it violates someone’s valid interests, not because it is bad for society, though it is bad for society.

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  41. Labnut:
    No reference for your misrepresented opinions of Sean Carroll, but perhaps that was because Carroll didn’t present them in your apparently preferred journal of serious science, namely the op-ed pages of a popular newspaper, the one which features the likes of Ross Douthat. But your numbered sermon was well organized, and I’m sure most Nobel prize winners in fundamental physics will take it to heart.

    Your numerology:

    1. Science had apparently met a (somewhat different) mythological boundary around 1900 with just a few numbers to be determined to higher accuracy. And around 1924 but Heisenberg spoiled it. And perhaps also 1224 with angels and (then also) pinheads to contend with.

    2. Somehow I seem to remember that your profound assertion “some things cannot be explained by science” coming up a few times in the distant past (one such thing being life), perhaps even by religiously inspired fellows. Maybe proper credit should have been assigned.

    3. By the way, Ellis and Silk completely misrepresented the initial postdictions explained by the inflation ‘implied’ multiverse theory. And, for the quite different Everett multiverse, we all should read seriously the new book from a man whose talk on a different topic was presented here a few months ago, namely David Wallace, the book being “The Emergent Multiverse” (definitely not a soppy popularization!—but certainly a curative for a second misleading implication of the Ellis/Silk essay, though the latter is at least a step up from NYTimes op-ed, if not two steps).

    Liked by 2 people

  42. Ooh, I really like this comment from mogguy above:
    So: “…science deals with facts not values.”
    mogguy: “…in saying this you presuppose that morality is never factual.”

    If you accept So’s premise (which I’m not sure I do, but I want to think this through), then we can try to work out a few possible situations.

    1) Science deals with all facts; morality deals with values; values are not facts.
    This would put some quite clear limits on the definition of the kind of thing a value is. Moral realism doesn’t fly, because that would make values facts; expressivism doesn’t work, because there are facts about people’s opinions, and expressivism says that those facts constitute morals; similarly for emotivism and prescriptivism. It’s not clear what would be left in that case. What would the statement “Saving a life is good” signify in this view? It would not be a statement of fact; nor an attitude. So seems to want to call it a “value”.

    2) Science deals with some facts; morality deals with other facts called values.
    This would raise the problem of how to distinguish one type of fact from another. Why can science not handle value-type facts? If they’re facts, I take them to be susceptible to empirical observation; and susceptible to reason. For me, that would make them susceptible to science.

    Liked by 1 person

  43. Sorry, nix my previous comments with the formatting errors. *sigh* Sorry. HTML…

    ejwinner: We don’t stop for red lights because it ‘feels good,’ but because it’s an expectation of the social reality in which we live – and the police will remind us of that should we prefer a separate reality.

    One problem with your “feelings” standard, is that it’s an absolute – thus your meta-ethical emotivism is an absolutist ethic and will operate in much the same way as a ‘moral realist ethics’ (one reason I know I’m more of a relativist than you).

    Not to butt in, but this is something I would more or less agree with Coel on. Meta-ethical emotivism (in conjunction with reason) is the only intelligible basis for ethical systems. At the end of the day, we don’t stop at red lights where there’s no chance of an accident not because we feel metaphysically obligated or because of societal obligations, but because if there’s a police officer who happens to see us, we’ll pay a price. Not wanting to be punished is an emotion.

    I agree that we have normative systems that are societal agreements (e.g. things like utilitarian reasoning, virtue ethics, etc), and I agree with the overall point of the role that philosophy plays in ethical discussions. But I wouldn’t promote that social contracts are basically the same thing as absolute or say that meta-physical emotivism is essentially moral realism. That’s seems a bit too sweeping.


  44. Truth has no demarcation problem because truth is unity, the single absolute. Most of you here are lost in a sea of uncertainty, of words and meanings that have no clarity at All. An example from above: “Meta-ethical emotivism in conjunction with reason is the only intelligible basis for ethical systems.”? What is that? Science and measure, religion and faith, physics and quantum probability, philosophy and their eternal questions, all these mighty disciplines are lost too, lost in a quagmire of their own devices. The answer is much more simple than you all make it. then they make it, the answer is simply the truth. =


  45. Apparently Coel is now quite close to my own utilitarian position by means of his “feelings” theory, though I’m sure that he’d say nothing has changed. Fine. There seems to be plenty of room for variability in philosophy given its many involved terms and ways of interpreting them. Observing this as a young man I decided to work on my own ideas independently, and did so for a couple of decades before I recently began to consider standard thought in the field. Yes language games do seem to be an issue (see Wittgenstein, not that I really have). Nevertheless I believe that the majority of troubles in philosophy can be resolved through the following observation:

    In order to facilitate a conscious variety of mind during the evolution of life, apparently a punishment/reward dynamic (“qualia”) needed to emerge.

    If we start from this position, isn’t it plausible to deductively explain the tremendous frustrations associated with this ancient field? Yes we’ve acquired various languages, social customs, and so on, but in the end, punishment/reward is what stands conscious existence apart from personally inconsequential existence. Therefore the personal value of any given conscious entity or society of them, shall amount to its qualia (utility, feelings, sensations, happiness, or whatever you want to call positive/negative personal existence). And what about morality, ethics, and so on? Such conventions must simply boil down to what I’ve mentioned above.

    I came to Scientia Salon somewhat because I noticed Coel putting up a hell of a fight to say that all of reality is connected, and thus should be studied under one essential heading. But apparently philosophers often take such notions disrespectfully. Pity. And how are psychologists suppose to effectively do their jobs, with no functional model of the conscious mind? Yes problems exist all around.

    Apparently many feel quite wronged by Coel, and there does seem to be a feeding frenzy right now. Argue your worst against him, but will it really help the field? Beyond a highly intelligent and educated scientist, some might decide that traditional philosophy must also be defended against the likes of me. I’m neither particularly bright nor educated, and make my living in the field of construction. Furthermore there are no word games with me, since I’m only now becoming familiar with the lexicon of the modern philosopher. Nevertheless I’m perhaps even more scientismist (if we must use this term) than Coel. While yes he does believe in a perpetual interconnectedness between all things real, he doesn’t present theory from which to potentially lift philosophy to the realm of science. He also doesn’t theorize the need for a modern philosopher to found our mental and behavioral sciences. I bring these points to the conversation, and I’m quite interested in both public and private discussions with those who seek advancement for this field of study.



  46. The semantic bugs crawling up and down this thread, as they always do, should not be dismissed as mere irritations – they are a fundamental problem, the Curse of Babel! It might be worthwhile for SciSal to consider having an official lexicon of about 20 words that everyone would be obligated to use as defined. Keeping the bugs out could save us all.

    Reality is the word-bug that I would put at the top of the list. We intuitively know that there exists the hard reality of things, particles and forces at one end, and the ephemeral universe of imaginings, beliefs and hopes at the other. Establishing the boundary between these domains has been the mother of all demarcation problems.

    Coel quotes this definition: “Moral realism (or Moral Objectivism) is the meta-ethical view that there exist such things as moral facts and moral values, and that these are objective and independent of our perception of them or our beliefs, feelings or other attitudes towards them.” Since feelings are an integral part of moral values, Coel concludes that moral values are not real, even when universally held.

    I believe Coel’s error consists of not drawing the line between the real and the abstract accurately. Humans are part and parcel of reality as it is. Our thoughts, feelings and fantasies are real, their content is a whole other matter.

    So when philosophers talk about the various realisms, I suspect that they are being as imprecise as the hard physicalists since they, like almost everyone else, do not distinguish between reality as it is and reality as it appears in consciousness.

    This issue has been of special interest to me and I have tried to define it here: (

    Liked by 1 person

  47. We’re programmed with feelings of pain (to protect our body) and aesthetic feelings (e.g. liking of food but disgust at putrid meat) and sexual feelings (for obvious reasons) and nurturing feelings towards children (ditto) and moral feelings about human interactions (to enable a cooperative ecological niche).

    If we’re “programmed with feelings” (though a really inaccurate way to describe what is actually going on), then the programming is independent of our feelings. If our feelings programmed us to be moral, then morality would be dependent upon our feelings. But they don’t. The feelings come out of the “programming”. They are a mechanism that biases us toward the goals that we must necessarily have to survive both as individuals and as a species.

    There are structural, objective realities about being an organism that make survival necessarily “good”. We know that sometimes our “feelings” can work against that necessary goal, just like our feelings about how we are being treated can make us cheat. That in itself should tell you that the reality isn’t dependent on feelings.


  48. Phil H (June7-10.08pm): to pursue your excellent “working out”. Whether an intention to save a life is good IS a moral value judgment, because saving lives does not always have good results. Unless, perhaps, one is a Roman Catholic or has another belief which similarly holds human life to be “sacred”. But the action of saving a life of a human is a fact which has moral value. The hidden problem is that here the same word “value” has been used with different meanings, which often gets, advantageously, overlooked in debating morality.

    As with
    davidlduffy (June7-6.44pm) who seems to imply that morality, or at least moral behaviour, exists throughout all life forms but is only found in human animals in the “abstract representation” form. I think this unique form arises out of our ability to communicate precisely to ourself and to others. Mother Hen cannot tell herself or her chicks that they “ought” to avoid foxes!

    fieldtheorist (June7-10.32pm): “Not wanting to be punished is an emotion”.
    Obeying a red traffic light is behaving both rationally and morally: aiming to facilitate traffic flow and to reduce risk of harm for the value of benefits to all road users. Laws and their enforcement are PRESCRIPTIVE codes but are still morally founded on moral value judgments: it removes behaviour from the individual subjective moral whims of citizens at large. Laws by their nature require obedience at all times: to legislate otherwise is normally too difficult enforce. All laws are founded on supposed moral principles though not all these are necessarily correct, they are just the value judgments of the prevailing ruling “Establishment”.
    Emotions are anciently evolved attributes (see Phil H above). I think reflexes, instincts, intuitive emotions are all evolved normative genetic moral coding, they control our behaviour quicker than conscious thoughts where this is desirable. Pain, for one example, is often vital to life where split-second reaction is necessary to protect it: or pain says something is wrong and you “ought/must” to do something about it. It is an unlucky (and unfit) human who is born feeling no pain or emotion


  49. labnut (June7-4.04pm): “Science is meeting boundaries.” and “..understanding the world will require a deeper, more complex and nuanced approach. Philosophy has the tools for this.”
    So the implication is of elder philosophy’s superiority. I don’t agree. Just like so many experiences, colours (red to blue as seen by human eyes), unconsciousness to consciousness, good to bad, etc., I think Philosophy and Science are of one spectrum with no discernible demarcation threshold between THEM, -let alone the one between science and pseudo-science of this Post. Historically much of “then” knowledge was necessarily that of beliefs of philosophers: this may have been pre-dated by pure religious belief perhaps. Philosophy derives knowledge where the repeatable empirical evidence is small but once further empirical evidence is obtained it slowly passes from philosophical belief into scientific belief,(“belief” I think is a better term than “knowledge”, more correct to say that I believe the evidence of my senses rather than “know” that there is a firm solid table in front if me). Natural Philosophy based on poor empirical evidence slowly became Physics with the invention of telescopes and the accumulation of a wealth of corroboratory astronomical data but there was no clear cut date when this happened. Astrology by contrast has no corresponding wealth of supporting evidence although it is quite certain that, at least, the moon’s gravitation exercises considerable effects on terrestrial life forms. Similarly Solar Astronomy is better grounded than Cosmology, Newtonian better grounded than Quantum Mechanics.


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