Sunday, March 28, 2010

Summum bonum medicinae sanitas

[3/30/10--Welcome Cosmic Variance readers. I'll remain silent on the question of whether I know what I'm talking about any better than Sean, except to nod reverently to Brandon @ Siris, to whom I owe my improved understanding of Hume and the is/ought fallacy.]

The end of physic is our body's health.
Why, Faustus, hast thou not attain'd that end?
Are not thy bills hung up as monuments,
Whereby whole cities have escap'd the plague,
And thousand desperate maladies been cur'd?
Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man.
Couldst thou make men to live eternally,
Or, being dead, raise them to life again,
Then this profession were to be esteem'd.
Physic, farewell! Where is Justinian?

--Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

Sean Carroll has come out hard against Sam Harris's recent, mulish TED talk arguing that science can (and should?) tell us what to value. Carroll's response draws on the clear and simple principle that arguing that values are "objectively true" is like trying to square the circle. You can only succeed by annihilating your subject.
In the real world, when we disagree with someone else’s moral judgments, we try to persuade them to see things our way; if that fails, we may (as a society) resort to more dramatic measures like throwing them in jail. But our ability to persuade others that they are being immoral is completely unaffected — and indeed, may even be hindered — by pretending that our version of morality is objectively true. In the end, we will always be appealing to their own moral senses, which may or may not coincide with ours.
Along the way, Carroll invokes Hume, to whom, it is commonly supposed, we owe the notion that "you can't derive an ought from an is." That's only partly true. Hume was getting at something more specific than a distinction between facts and values. He was trying to identify an error in rationalist thinking, in order to discredit that way of thinking, and the fact-value gap was his reductio. In the end, Hume didn't take much interest in deriving oughts from anything, and makes a poor champion for moral reasoning.

What most casual talk of "oughts" leaves out is a conditional premise. We ought to do X, if Y. We ought to eat better, if we want to live longer. We ought not to murder, if we believe that humans are ends in themselves -- or that we want to avoid a blood feud -- or that what goes around comes around -- or that God will be displeased with us for reasons he hasn't specified. Or some combination of these premises, which generally speaking flow from the way we imagine the nature of the world, which is to say, from our metaphysics.

The main danger of defining values as a sub-category of "empirical fact," as Harris does, is that it buries our metaphysical depictions in cement, where we can no longer call them up for reconsideration. It is an ideological move to say that one's values are universal, but it is nearly always a lie.

Harris asks:
Why is it that we don't have ethical obligations toward rocks? Why don't we feel compassion for rocks? It's because we don't think rocks can suffer. And if we're more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it's because we think they're exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering.

[...]

There is no version of human morality and human values that I've come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.
Overt concern with the fate of conscious (and pain-sensitive) agents is the sort of "universal moral truth" that seems obvious to those who have not surveyed the facts, which don't permit any such universality. The connection between "biological complexity" and sentience is a relatively new moral development. To an animist, mountains, trees, and bodies of water are all conscious. To a follower of Vedanta, everything in the world is a performance by the Godhead. Buddhist and Jain monks take care not to trod on the smallest beetle if they can help it. To define sentience in our modern way, as a function of neural complexity, and then argue that such sentience has always been everyone's concern, is incoherent.

Discussions of meta-ethics must take into consideration that like all societies, we have our own metaphysical presuppositions that our ethical questions flow from. Today we are almost all humanists of a type, and this includes the Abrahamic religions. Secularists and monotheists alike take for granted that nature--matter--is passive and inert, and must be shaped by an intentional or "informational" force, whether God, man, or laws of physics and natural selection. This is not a matter of science, it is a matter of the metaphysical view that permits science (though there may be others).

Another important metaphysical precept that goes unexamined in Harris'analysis is Hobbesean social atomism, which underlies most moral thinking in the enlightenment tradition. But ecologists have been questioning for at least a century whether it makes any sense to value apes and dolphins, but not ants and plankton, when they each inhabit (with all of creation) the same web of causation. Perhaps it is not so crazy to have an ethical obligation towards rocks (in the form of coral reefs, for example), and perhaps this is area in which our primitive forebears have bested us in moral reasoning, by recogizing there is no extraneous, separable part of nature which we are not obligated to.

Harris does have some thoughtful things to say in this lecture. He makes a strong case for moral reasoning (though I would say it conflicts with his main thesis that morality is empirical.) And he makes the important point that we do have the right to judge other people's moral practices, such as shame killings. But ultimately his animus for religion drives him to illogical conclusions, such as the notion that what the Taliban lacks is sufficient science about "human flourishing" to make good moral choices1. By this standard, how much less moral must the ancient Greeks have been, who knew so much less science than the medieval Arabs. And how much more immoral the nomadic tribes that preceded them thoughout Africa and Asia minor. How immoral that first human couple must have been, in their African Eden!

What this hyper-utilitarianism (which marries Mill with the logical positivists) primarily accomplishes is this. It  obviates the need to look reflectively at evil. When evil can be equated with a simple paucity of learning, like deficiency of a vitamin, there is no need to look within our own hearts for its seeds. All the world's darkness can be projected outwards onto people we couldn't have less in common with. We don't want to subjegate women; we don't want to tyrannize innocents; we don't want to convert the whole globe to our ethos, and exterminate those who resist (wait, scratch that last one.) Unfortunately it is far more likely that the opposite is true. Not even all the science of John Faustus can make us good, if we won't season it with introspection.





1It is noteworthy that Harris sets up the Dalai Lama as a paragon of virtue, based on his emphasis on compassion. But Tibetan Buddhism is just as old as Sunni Islam, which Harris places on the other pole, and while it may not be as reactionary in its anti-modernism as the Taliban, it does not embrace the metaphysical naturalism that Harris conflates with science.

24 comments:

Wandering Internet Commentator said...

Why is it that we don't have ethical obligations toward rocks? Why don't we feel compassion for rocks? It's because we don't think rocks can suffer. And if we're more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it's because we think they're exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering.

Forgive me if this sounds snide, but I have to wonder if Mr. Harris has read much of the evo-bio literature about human affection for animals. Although lamentably I'm just going off memory here and can't provide a citation, I'm pretty sure most of the animals human beings have affection for--puppies, kittens, and yes, monkeys--are so loved because of their resemblance to baby humans or at least being easily anthropomorphized (looking 'cute,' i.e big heads and small bodies in the case of kittens and puppies, acting like silly people in the case of monkeys and apes, etc.). We don't like rocks or ants because they're not easy to empathize with (and in the case of ants, are actually pests). "possibilities for suffering" don't come into play at all. Most people as as concerned with kitties and puppies as they are with their fellow primates (if not more so), because kitties and puppies are cute, not because they can suffer as much as our close relatives. At least if memory serves.

If this is correct--and if not, I apologize for my poor memory--I have to wonder if Harris has as good a handle on how human beings actually think and feel as he does on what he wants them to think and feel.

underverse said...

Not to mention that pigs and cows surely have as much possibility for suffering as kitties and puppies, but they belong to a whole other category when it comes to "ethical obligations." Obviously this is one thing Peter Singer is getting at in his work, and Singer seems to be one of the few moral philosophers Harris is familiar with. But the point Caroll makes on this is a good one. There is a difference, at least in theory, between the empathy we "naturally" feel and the empathy we should feel. Social science is very good at delineating the way we divide people into in groups and out groups, which seems to be one of our natural talents. If science tells us what we should value, does that xenophobia is a moral act?

Russell Blackford said...

Great Zeus, Chris, I actually agree with a lot your points! (I think you're unnecessarily harsh about Hume, though.)

underverse said...

I'm pleased to hear it.

Judging from your comments at Metamagician and Cosmic Variance, we probably disagree on the relative weight of Harris' comments about metaethics versus his more non-controversial ones about what you are calling "action guidance." Through medicine we have been observing this principle for centuries, and even the outgroups are guiding their actions by what they consider to be facts (homeopathy, Christian science). The question here is what we will tolerate in others, given competing ideas of what constitutes empirical fact. We seem to have worked out that denying effective medical treatment to children is criminal under a stewardship principle. And we are questioning whether willful unhealthy choices like bad diet and drugs are something other people should pay for, though community rating of insurance, for example. But of course it wasn't science that told us to value children's medical health (or our own); it was science that told us, and is telling us, how to go about it if we want to continue. Even if valuing children is a universal, I think we agree that we came to it through reasoning that was something other than purely empirical.

In my follow-up piece I get into why i think it's Harris' metaethical claim we should be paying attention to, since it has extremely illiberal implications.

John Wilkinson said...

"Overt concern with the fate of conscious (and pain-sensitive) agents is the sort of "universal moral truth" that seems obvious to those who have not surveyed the facts, which don't permit any such universality." I think Harris addresses this, I'm surprised you don't seem to notice(to my view). The fact that such a concern is not shared universally does not mean there is no truth of the matter to be known. If I assert that Beethoven completed 9 symphonies and you disagree, asserting that he penned 15, this does not mean that both views are equally correct, even though within this community(say we're the last two on earth) we have perfect 50/50 disagreement. He either put the double bars on 9 or 15, even if they are lost and we will never be in a position to know. there is a truth whether we can discern it or not.

"The connection between "biological complexity" and sentience is a relatively new moral development. To an animist, mountains, trees, and bodies of water are all conscious. To a follower of Vedanta, everything in the world is a performance by the Godhead. Buddhist and Jain monks take care not to trod on the smallest beetle if they can help it. To define sentience in our modern way, as a function of neural complexity, and then argue that such sentience has always been everyone's concern, is incoherent." Harris does no such thing. He plainly asserts that people can live for entirely the wrong things and always have done. In the Ted talk he says something like 'it is possible for people to care about the wrong things.' The point about animists buddhists etc. is the first again. They believe trees are conscious based on a dogma, not on evidence. I am quite sure Sam would welcome it and widen his sphere of concern accordingly.

"Social science is very good at delineating the way we divide people into in groups and out groups, which seems to be one of our natural talents. If science tells us what we should value, does that xenophobia is a moral act?" Now this is even more dissapointing. You don't imagine Harris to argue that evolution and morality are synonymous, even though he explicitly repudiates the idea?(think of the example he gives of rape conferring evolutionary benefits..)

underverse said...

<span>The fact that such a concern is not shared universally does not mean there is no truth of the matter to be known.</span>

The insistence on universality was not mine, it was Harris's. Harris suggests, falsely, that no ethical system has ever existed that does not concern itself exclusively with conscious states. He explicitly argues from this that because we have no ethical duty to rocks, that we *should* have no ethical duty to rocks. Not having ethical duties to rocks is supposedly a universal moral truth, showing that moral systems are always (universally) built around concern for the suffering of sentient beings. But this is quite demonstrably false. There are numerous historical ethical systems which are not exclusively based on the reduction of suffering (in the neurally complex way Harris means it). I've listed several. And even if such an outlook *had* been universal, the emergence of ecology would offer a challenge to that universality. The fact that we reflexively value primates over insects and rocks does not imply that we must reflectively do so. 

<span>They believe trees are conscious based on a dogma, not on evidence. </span>

Are you sure? It seems more likely that such a belief is based on a combination of evidence and ideology, just as the naturalist view is based on scientific data interpreted through the rubric of naturalistic metaphysics, such as I discuss (hylomorphism, atomism, social atomism, mechanism, etc.) It is a compelling myth that modern science has obviated metaphysical commitments, but such a myth has never been philosophically tenable.

<span>You don't imagine Harris to argue that evolution and morality are synonymous, even though he explicitly repudiates the idea?(think of the example he gives of rape conferring evolutionary benefits..)</span>

It's not my job to make Harris' argument coherent. Just because he argues against sociobiology in one place doesn't mean it doesn't logically follow from his argument elsewhere. If Harris is going to argue that our fondness for apes is good because it is natural, he's going to have a difficult time establishing why other natural things are not equally good.

John Wilkinson said...

It seems to me you are conflating a few things and confusing them. "Harris suggests, falsely, that no ethical system has ever existed that does not concern itself exclusively with conscious states." Yes he says 'ultimately reducable to'. This is an important distinction. He is not saying that every belief system would define itself with these terms, but that it is their real concern. So the ascetic who believes true morality demands hair shirts, and genuinely seeks misery and suffering, does so to please god. They desire peace for their soul in the afterlife, or eternity or what have you. They wish not to suffer the torments of hell, or disgrace in the eyes of god etc etc. this is what Harris means when he says show me a black box  with a system of ethics that has nothing whatever to do with possible changes in conscious experience of beings capable of it and I will show you the least interesting thing in the universe.

"But this is quite demonstrably false. There are numerous historical ethical systems which are not exclusively based on the reduction of suffering (in the neurally complex way Harris means it). " Well of course, there were ethical systems born before there was any knowledge of the relationship between neural complexity and sensation of pain etc. Such systems still sought ultimate peace, or approval, oneness with god, or nature what have you. I am unaware of a system that advertised to its conscripts: "follow our way, and eternal misery can be yours."

"Are you sure? It seems more likely that such a belief is based on a combination of evidence and ideology, just as the naturalist view is based on scientific data interpreted through the rubric of naturalistic metaphysics..." well look the best evidence suggests to me that a rock does not suffer, having no central nervous system, not recoiling from blows, not evincing the capacity to flourish or languish etc. If that evidence is forthcoming I welcome it and so would Harris.

"If Harris is going to argue that our fondness for apes is good because it is natural, he's going to have a difficult time establishing why other natural things are not equally good." He doesn't. He is saying it is good because the best evidence so far indicates that they can suffer, nearly on a par with homo sapiens. If broken glass is shown to be able to suffer it doesn't matter to Harris that we are not naturally disposed to concern ourself with its well-being. Its interests must then count.

I can say to you, I define this(as I hold my ipod) as an orange. I'm free to do this, strictly speaking. but you would be correct within the discourse of ordinary english to say, ok, but that's false. That is an ipod. And you can (and should) ostracize me from a discussion about the best farming practices for citrus. A person is free to say my definition of morality is cruelty and the disfigurement of womens faces by acid attacks, and we are free to say well you don't know the definition, and can be excluded from the discussion. If that is, Harris's assertion that no system he is aware of does not ultimately reduce to the potential changes in conscious states. But then, what possible interest could that have to anyone who could never(by definition) notice? You're left holding the most uninteresting thing in the universe.

underverse said...

John, 

An ethical system does not need to be interesting to you to be quite relevant to the people that embrace it. The historical fact, whether you accept it or not, is that numerous human societies have had ethical obligations to less sentient and even non-sentient entities. Your notion that humans care only about the suffering of neurally complex beings is normative, not universal.

But even if it were universal, do you really believe that the ethical systems that promote splashing acid on women don't likewise find a way to justify these actions on the same grounds of "human flourishing?" Such a punishment is supposed to be a means to the end of greater social harmony and cohesion for all, which is not to say by any means that I condone it. But it bears a passing resemblance to Harris's advocacy of killing "certain people," without a trial, for their beliefs, so that the greater society may benefit. Even jihadis can suffer, so apparently there is more to this morality business than raw compassion.

John Wilkinson said...

"An ethical system does not need to be interesting to you to be quite relevant to the people that embrace it. The historical fact, whether you accept it or not, is that numerous human societies have had ethical obligations to less sentient and even non-sentient entities." Obligations that would never result in conscious beings of any kind(whether the universe as a whole, or the tree itself or the gods dissaproval) being aware of the consequences? I doubt it. In what way could it possibly matter?

"But even if it were universal, do you really believe that the ethical systems that promote splashing acid on women don't likewise find a way to justify these actions on the same grounds of "human flourishing?""  First of all the main aim of Harris' argument is to get ivory tower westerners for whom acid attacks are nothing but pictures on their cellphones(I don't mean this as a caustic attack against you, only that this is in fact the situation we are generally in with respect to thinkers in the west) to admit that there are indeed universals. So if I've got you admitting that, the heavy lifting is mostly behind us as far as I'm concerned.

"it bears a passing resemblance to Harris's advocacy of killing "certain people," without a trial, for their beliefs, so that the greater society may benefit. Even jihadis can suffer, so apparently there is more to this morality business than raw compassion."  A passing resemblance, so long as you don't think about it for a second. Killing those who will kill all of the rest of us if they are able to is a bit of common sense that I don't feel compelled to defend. Consigning women to 15 surgeries on their face, lips, eyes, and tongue for not hiding their faces is going to be a tough sell to any serious utilitarian, you're welcome to try if so inclined, but I think your caveat that you don't mean you condone it reveals your discomfirt with your expressed position. With good reason.

Hamish said...

<span>Secularists and monotheists alike take for granted that nature--matter--is passive and inert, and must be shaped by an intentional or "informational" force, whether God, man, or laws of physics and natural selection.</span>

If you think that the laws of physics are intentional with respect to matter which is passive, you've got a lot of twentieth-century physics to catch up on, let alone twenty-first. I suggest you start reading here.

underverse said...

Note I said "almost all." I agree that post-Newtonian physics deviates from this world-picture. I had in mind "middle world" science like biology and mechanics. But even particle physics has metaphysical implications. Heisenberg, Bohr and Scheodinger were all students of Vedanta. Heisenberg explicitly advocated a shift from Democrian atomism to a kind of neo-Paltonic theory of forms. The point is that whatever what's metaphysics are, one's ethics are contingent upon them.

underverse said...

<span><span>

Killing those who will kill all of the rest of us if they are able to is a bit of common sense that I don't feel compelled to defend.
<span>
</span>
<span>This would be common sense, perhaps, if that's what we were talking about. See my response to Mike in the the follow up thread. Beliefs are not reducible to intentions, which is why our legal system takes measures to distinguish the two. Harris has had several chances to clarify his statements about how it is "ethical" to kill people for expressing a particular logical proposition, but he has not, to date, made such a stance contingent on assessing an inclination to act it. </span>
<span>
</span>
<span>How would this standard work if we applied it generally? In my life I have known numerous people who believed in violent overthrow of the government, though they themselves were not revolutionaries, and had no plans to instigate such an overthrow, or even (necessarily) to participate in one, should it come to pass. Harris's moral calculus wherein propositions themselves(!) are dangerous cannot distinguish between actual revolutionaries, revolutionary sympathizers, and those who believe they are revolutionaries until the moment arrives, at which point they realign with lawful reform.</span>
<span>
</span>
<span>We would think it absurd to advocate the bombing of such people, and it is just as absurd to advocate killing people "because of what they and their followers believe about jihad, martyrdom, [and] the ascendancy of Islam." This does not mean we have no recourse against actual jihadis (or revolutionaries, or common criminals.) If we can furnish evidence of intent to harm others, or past harm, then we are justified in taking a range of legal and military actions. But shifting the burden of guilt from intention to mere belief is an affront to the freedom of conscience that our liberal tradition is based upon. </span>
</span></span>

underverse said...

The main aim of Harris' argument is to get ivory tower westerners for whom acid attacks are nothing but pictures on their cellphones [...] to admit that there are indeed universals. So if I've got you admitting that, the heavy lifting is mostly behind us as far as I'm concerned.  

You don't have me admitting that opposition to acid attacks is a position we can look to *science* to resolve for us, which is the case Harris tries to make. Rather it's a particular exercise moral reasoning that takes a number of competing interests seriously. Science can help elucidate our choices, but it can't take the next step and choose among them. Making this case into a "universal" doesn't get us very far, at any rate. "Don't splash acid on people" is not a uniquely malign subset of the general principle "don't assault people extralegally." (Nor do Muslims--or religious people generally--have any monopoly on hate crimes.) I am against vigilantism, and I support the state monopoly on power and coercion modern states have devised as an improvement on the code duello, but I'm not ready to say that improvement translates to universality.

If by "heavy lifting" you mean that you, me and Harris all oppose vigilantism (except when he doesn't), domestic violence, and shame killings, then I agree, but the point I am making is that this is not contingent on Harris' attempt to make morality empirical. We don't have to excuse behavior we find morally incorrect (or abhorrent) in order to characterize our own moral arguments as derived not just from scientific facts but also on reason and imagination.

Obligations that would never result in conscious beings of any kind(whether the universe as a whole, or the tree itself or the gods dissaproval) being aware of the consequences? I doubt it. In what way could it possibly matter?  

In a broad sense I agree with you. Down the line there will always be an interested party. But look how far we have traveled from Harris's original contention, that science has proved, though articulation of neural complexity, that we are right to value apes more than insects more than rocks. I think the opposite case could be made, that our valuation of apes is a kind of sentimentality deriving from biological imperatives (kin selection), and only when we reflectively apply reason in combination with a metaphysical picture that emphasizes interconnectedness, can we see it for the sentimentality it is, and reject it in favor of a morality that does not evaluate suffering based solely on its similarity to our own, so that we don't needlessly kill a fly anymore than we do an ape. I don't argue this case, I just offer it to show how Harris might be mistaking normative ideology for universal moral truth.

John Wilkinson said...

"Harris has had several chances to clarify his statements about how it is "ethical" to kill people for expressing a particular logical proposition, but he has not, to date, made such a stance contingent on assessing an inclination to act it." There is a Response to this on Sam's site. http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2/ For my part, I think the context indicates the position: In a world of increasingly enormous destructive technology wherein a single person can wreak utter devastation with the click of a mouse, it may become intolerable to our survival that someone believes god wants him to do so. At any rate, this is obviously a subtle and difficult case, which Harris may be wrong about. It is open for discussion, the important thing is that you admit there is a right answer to the question to be known, even if we fail the test.

"<span>How would this standard work if we applied it generally? In my life I have known numerous people who believed in violent overthrow of the government, though they themselves were not revolutionaries, and had no plans to instigate such an overthrow, or even (necessarily) to participate in one, should it come to pass. Harris's moral calculus wherein propositions themselves(!) are dangerous cannot distinguish between actual revolutionaries, revolutionary sympathizers, and those who believe they are revolutionaries until the moment arrives, at which point they realign with lawful reform." Good question. Tough case. The first thing to notice is that if such people have access to a nuclear arsenal I bet you would be much less sanguine, and care very acutely indeed to answer it correctly. I tally that rather a point for my side.</span>
<span></span>
<span>"<span>We would think it absurd to advocate the bombing of such people, and it is just as absurd to advocate killing people "because of what they and their followers believe about jihad, martyrdom, [and] the ascendancy of Islam." This does not mean we have no recourse against actual jihadis (or revolutionaries, or common criminals.) If we can furnish evidence of intent to harm others, or past harm, then we are justified in taking a range of legal and military actions. But shifting the burden of guilt from intention to mere belief is an affront to the freedom of conscience that our liberal tradition is based upon." I added italics because I think you are in a certain specific way correct and is perhaps the most important part of Harris' initial argument in EOF. He is indeed arguming that certain notions of tolerance need to go by the board if we are to survive the proliferation of destructive technology. The link between belief and action is all too often(and even once would compel us to challenge the notion that beliefs are private, but we are talking about hundreds of thousands of cases easily) without daylight, and the fact needs to be addressed. Now in addressing it Harris may be wrong so let's have an open-ended debate, but why bother if you believe it's all just opinion anyway none better than another?</span></span>
<span><span></span></span>
<span><span>"only when we reflectively apply reason in combination with a metaphysical picture that emphasizes interconnectedness, can we see it for the sentimentality it is, and reject it in favor of a morality that does not evaluate suffering based solely on its similarity to our own, so that we don't needlessly kill a fly anymore than we do an ape. I don't argue this case, I just offer it to show how Harris might be mistaking normative ideology for universal moral truth." This possibility is [...]

underverse said...

If you're going to "tally point for your side" based on what you imagine me to believe there's really no need for my input. (And the difficulty of ascertaining another person's "propositions" should play a cautionary role here.)

I don't concede any of your points, especially not about the paranoid fantasies of access to "nuclear arsenals." Even granting such an implausibility, we still have recourse to evaluation of intent, not belief alone. None of Harris' critics are arguing that we have no justification to pursue, for example, bin Laden or Zawahiri. But this justification is based on past crimes and a demonstrable intent to do harm. If all we had were access to thier stated beliefs, and Harris' wacky pseudo-scientific ideas about the etiology of violence, we would at best have the right to surveil them. If someone is plotting to murder tens, hundreds, or millions of innocents, I support the legal means to abort their efforts already available to us. To neglect to separate them from people who might agree with their "propositions" but not be inclined to act on them is to take a quick trip to Airstrip One.

I never said all opinions are equal. We can judge, and we can argue. Tolerance need not amount to an endorsement. But until we have a better way to fend off tyranny it is is no answer to make special provision beyond those we already use to evaluate harm. If "destructive technology" is enough to trump pluralism it was never worth much.

Carlos said...

"<span><span>In my life I have known numerous people who believed in violent overthrow of the government, though they themselves were not revolutionaries, and had no plans to instigate such an overthrow, or even (necessarily) to participate in one, should it come to pass."</span></span>

I'm a bit late to the thread, but if you are still around, John... Were these people religious ideologues? Secular? I'm curious because my most frequent contact with people who pine for others to commit violence so that some imagined "nirvana" may commence are overwhelmingly non-theistic. Is that your exsperience as well?

Carlos said...

Flagging post above.

John Wilkinson said...

I don't concede any of your points, especially not about the paranoid fantasies of access to "nuclear arsenals." Even granting such an implausibility..." Of course I can't force you to concede for example that you misrepresented what constitutes Harris' 'moral sphere' which you demonstrably did do, one hopes anyone reading this little exchange notes it. Especially not the incredible outlandish fantasy about nuclear arsenals in the hands of non-rational, religiously serious actors? You are apparently unaware of the country Iran. Perhaps here we reach a terminus..
<span></span>

"I never said all opinions are equal. We can judge..." This is what Harris is arguing. That all opinions are not equal. Just as mathematics is based at a ground level on axioms we must simply accept to move forward, does not mean there are no experts or distinction between right and wrong answers.

"Tolerance need not amount to an endorsement." Well in the real world that's exactly what it all too often does amount to. Tolerating the demands of Islamic theocracy leaves your distinction without a difference.

"If "destructive technology" is enough to trump pluralism it was never worth much." ah now here are the benefits of tolerance! You can't be serious. Are you unable to imagine one person with brain damage or terrible ideas and access to destructive technology(which for a telling reason you put in scare quotes) bringing ruin to the pluralistic society of which he is a member? What isn’t worth much is pluralism plus relativism. There’s something worth opposing.

John Wilkinson said...

Carlos you quoted Mr. schoen, not me. And no that is not my experience at all. The front page of any newspaper is more or less a chronicle of the all too real heinous things religious people are doing every day at god's command to spread the love. So, no.

John Wilkinson said...

(quick note: Mr. Schoen it also appears that Sam is having a colloquy with allcomers at his site right now on his Hume rebuttal right now. Seems to me the best place to register any objections.)

underverse said...

Carlos it's hard to tell sometimes who's quoting who with Echo, but that was me. 

underverse said...

John, if you think Iran an existential threat to the US we have indeed reached a terminus. 

John Wilkinson said...

Yes we properly have. http://slate.com/id/2221020

Christopher Carr said...

<span>
<p>I think radical empirical skepticism is how science should be done actually.  Science is a process for maintaining an appropriate balance between rationality and intuition, with the ultimate goal of explaining phenomena, and morality is a process for maintaining an appropriate balance between action and inaction, with the ultimate goal of minimizing harm; it is doubtful that science or morality will ever be more than imperfect approximations, but that says nothing of science’s usefulness, which should be our focus:
</p><p>http://www.theinductive.com/articles/2010/3/30/an-uncertain-defense-of-deboer.html
</p></span>