Conversation with Sam
Skype is amazing. I have just had a two hour conversation with Sam in Singapore. It cost us nothing!
Almost inevitably, we spoke of Sam Harris, the neuroscientist who disbelieves in Free Will but does believe in Moral Absolutes.
Moral Absolutes Yes!
Free Will No!
Free Will No!
In his book The Moral Landscape Harris attempts the impossible: deriving ought from is. It is a geometrical truth that squaring the circle is a mathematical impossibility; a logical truth that obligations cannot be derived from observations alone.
David Hume says in A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
The great stylists of the past did us no favours with their rolling periods. Have I been unjust to Hume?
Peter Singer has called the problem ‘trivial’. Is it really trivial how we arrive at moral positions? Singer tells us that he has no problem with parents killing their children if they (the children) do not satisfy the parents’ expectations. My Sam (an expectant father) is not a Singerian.
Harris does a fine job of describing desirable outcomes, which come under the heading of Human Flourishing. I think I had a pretty good idea of what it means for a human to flourish before reading him. I think I also knew that promoting human flourishing was not just a good idea but moral. Harris did nothing to help me to move from HF to ‘morality’. Hume knew that it was logically impossible. I was there already. Harris is redundant. The gap between is and ought is not reduced by a millimetre.
There are moral facts: cruelty is bad, generosity is good. I need no proofs to convince you – or even evidence.
SH says that Free Will is simply an illusion – it’s a lie. But, and my Sam agrees with me, we have no choice but to act as though we have free will. I am an acting agent – so are you – so is SH. But by acting and at the same time believing that I have no free will I would be living a lie. Incidentally, Sam Harris is against lying. He wrote a whole book about it: Lying. For sure, I may not be aware of everything that conditions my choices – no surprise there. Harris does not tell me that I can ignore my conscience (he believes in good and evil) only that it doesn’t really mean anything. He is telling me that something I experience cannot be experienced because it is illusory.
In effect, he is telling me that the entity I call ‘I’, an acting agent who makes choices, does not exist. He tells me that I do not exist! This implied assertion (of my none-existence) seriously undermines his credibility (at least in my eyes). He is not a solipsist, one who believes that only he exists and that all other phenomena are the products of his mind; but his metaphysical propositions are equally incapable of demonstration and equally suspect.