Impressions of a Debate about the Naturalistic Fallacy


It surprised me that i hadn’t come across this video before, featuring a debate between a fascinating selection of speakers, about the relation between facts and values.

If you read my earlier post ”Can ethics be moved in the direction of becoming scientific?”, you may recall the criticism directed at Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape. The argument he puts forth in the debate is pretty much identical to the main point of the book (that moral values can in principle be deduced from facts).
Granted that values reduce to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures, Patricia Churchland, also a neuroscientist, makes a good point; we can disagree about values while agreeing about the facts.

We can look upon the same evidence and draw different normative conclusions about what should be done taking this evidence into account. Furthermore, well-being is not some predefined ultimate goal, even though evolution might have favored creatures capable of attaining it.
On a side note, it’s also interesting that some people not only disagree about values, but also about evidence. Take the debate between Richard Dawkins and Wendy Wright for example, where Dawkins repeatedly encourages Wright to ”just look at the evidence”, while she doesn’t seem to understand what he means and clearly thinks she has seen the evidence for herself.
And also in less extreme cases, we might interpret evidence differently, based on our values and what we want to be true according to some preconception of a favored world-view, or our beliefs about the world.
Reducing all values to well-being would require an extremely broad definition of the term ”well-being”, to include the most minimal feelings of satisfaction one gets from finding an interpretation of the facts that agrees with ones world-view.
Another problem with Harris’s ideas is expanded upon by philosopher Simon Blackburn, to be discussed later.

Next up is Peter Singer, who holds the probably most common-sensical view that science can inform morality but not determine it.  Science can’t really tell us what is right and wrong, but it can indeed help us make that decision.

(…I’m having a somewhat disturbing association to this Hitler rant, telling us why we need philosophers to do the dirty work science can’t complete on its own. But this was added mostly for the lulz.)

This time, Lawrence Krauss departed from his tradition of using image slides, replacing them with quotes ”to appear scholarly”, surely impressing the philosophers while conveniently opening up for discussion. He goes on to argue that it’s impossible to tell right from wrong without science, because science teaches us about the reality by which we are constraiend. His point is not that we unanimously reach the same value judgments by following the methods of science, but that as rational beings, it helps us determine the consequences of our actions by distinguishing reality from non-reality. So, both the ”sciencentific method of secular empiricism” and rationality is required for moral truth, according to his argument.

As Krauss concludes, we are here because science works. People viewed as uncivilized or immoral by western standards have turned thier backs on science, denied the reality around them or are simply irrational. This produes societies with poverty and disorder, and excludes the benefits of modern technology. It seems to me, although my knowledge is probably inadequate to judge, that this view of the reasons for poverty and lack of civilization is rather naive, the same goes for the conception of humans as rational beings.

”Reality is that which,  when you stop believing in it, is still there.”
~Philip K. Dick

”The only way to have real success in science …is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try and explain what’s good about it and what’s bad about it equally. In science you learn a sort of standard integrity and honesty.”
~Richard Feynman

(Ugh, i should’ve used that Feynman quote on last weeks religion class, where a debate sparked up about whether creationism should be taught on biology lessons.  People trying to equate acceptance of evidence and religious belief honestly makes me want to slam my head into a wall, at least when i have to listen to their arguments…)

Simon Blackburn raises an interesting point about our mental states that prompts a distinction between a) how the world is represented internally; information, knowledge and beliefs about our environment, and b) our desires, intentions and concerns (things we care about), that in turn warrant a division between facts and values. This is because the latter puts you in a disposition to change something about the world to conform to what we care about, while beliefs and knowledge simply represent the world without intention or desire to change it.

Steven Pinker also problematizes the question, opening with an enigmatic ”yes and no” to the question of whether science can tell us right from wrong. Also, the composition of the panel might reflect what the organizers of the debate meant by science as simply ”un-religion” and he goes on to discuss why religion cannot determine right from wrong for various reasons, much to the awe of the (not-randomly selected) audience.
For more on this question of morality and religion, i’d recommend the book, God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens.
In line with Peter Singer, Pinker holds the view that in the sense that most people define science, it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition to tell us right from wrong.

For readers who are still with me at this point, i encourage anyone who’s interested in the subject matter to listen to this debate. Although if you’re familiar with the speakers, most of what they say in the opening statements will probably be fairly unsurprising, maybe a bit disappointing in it’s brevity.

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