Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Walking the tightrope between left and right.

Today’s editorial in the WSJ by the president of the United States can be understood on at least two levels.

On one level it is an exercise in reasoned persuasion, on the basis of sound evidence and logic, to move the economic policy in a more sensible direction. If this is the intention, it must be judged an abysmal failure. As my annotations at the link below suggest, the reasoning is faulty, the assertions are vague and unsupported - the rhetoric reads like something out of Orwell's 1984 - "newspeak" - terms that mean the very opposite of what they say.

On a second level, this is a rhetorical play – a big one. I have said for a while that one of my biggest fears is that Obama will reinvent himself as a candidate of the “moderate middle” regain the support of the “moderates” and independents and win reelection in 2012. Is seems to me this editorial is all about that reelection. All form and no substance, it is an attempt to appeal to those who are worried about his commitment to a healthy economy. It is an attempt to allay these fears while not alienating the anti-business crowd too much. He is cleverly walking a tightrope, looking right and left and hoping not to fall.

Will it work?

You can find the editorial, together with my annotations, at the link below.
Click here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

You cannot replace God with Science - don't try.

Sam Harris is at it again. For those who don't know him, Harris is an American neuroscientist best known for his critical work on religion. In his books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation he provides devastating critiques of traditional religious beliefs. Though not new, his arguments are candid and compelling - at least to me. Reading his work (like the work of his fellow "New Atheists," Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett) leaves me wondering about two "mysteries" of life.

Mystery number 1 is how on earth reasonable people can believe the types of things claimed by the teachings of the traditional religions. I am talking factual things, not moral truths, like the stories of creation, revelation, miracles, etc. when the evidence and common sense is so compellingly against such things. I suppose I don't really expect to get a satisfying answer to this question. The explanation probably lies in the cognitive-emotional makeup of human beings. Which begs the question, why do some believe so fervently and others think that it is all nonsense and superstition? Leave that aside.

Mystery number 2 arises out of the realization that while the "answers" given by traditional religion may be patently unsatisfactory, or, actually, not really answers at all, no good answers to the "big" questions exist. There are many things in heaven and on earth that remain unknown, and perhaps unknowable. The ratio of what we know to what we don't know about what there is to know, might be pathetically low. This would not be surprising to me. And about the really "big" questions I imagine there can never be an answer. "How was the universe created?" or more accurately, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" or more mundanely, "From where does matter come?" are questions that tease us but whose coherence may be in doubt. They suggest some sort of transcendent infinite regress. I am content to say "I don't know, nobody knows, we will probably never know."

So much for the New Atheism. But Harris is not content to confine his argument to a penetrating critique of pretended knowledge. He also wants to attack the morality of religion. On some of this I find his arguments quite reasonable. Some religious teachings strike us "reasonable" folks as simply medieval. However, as I have explained before, here, what Harris fails to realize is that this kind of criticism, criticism of moral values, is of a whole different category from criticism of factual beliefs. Morals belong to the world of tastes and values informing us about how the world ought to be; factual beliefs belong to the world of facts informing us about how the world is. These are categorically different. As the British philosopher David Hume taught us, you cannot get an "ought" from an "is." You cannot decide how things ought to be simply by looking at how they are. Matters of value are different from matters of fact. "Harry is a thief" may be a fact. "Harry ought to be punished" is not. And the second sentence does not follow from the first without the insertion of some personal judgment.

Roughly the last third of The End of Faith is devoted to the futile exercise of trying to deduce morals from "scientific" facts. And now Harris has written a whole new book on this: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Notice the subtitle. It is a straight-out denial of Hume's distinction between facts and values. How does he do it? With a very clumsy slight of hand, that is how.

He begins by equating morality to that which fosters "well-being" - since deep down everyone believes that we should be concerned about well-being. Hence if you find the scientific determinants of well-being you can find a scientific basis for morality! QED. One can use the objective filter of science to determine what is moral and what is not on the basis of the effect of various behaviors on well-being. Simply examine the states of people's brains under different conditions to find out what makes them "happy" and you can write the book on a scientific morality - as he perceives himself to have done.

It is clear from his references and sources, that in addition to work on neuroscience, Harris relies on work in what has been called Behavioral Economics. This includes recent work on so-called "happiness research" and the "new paternalism." Using laboratory methods (simulated realities with volunteers) these researchers claim to be able to discern enduring truths about human perception and decision-making. Maybe they can. Its what follows that is often problematic in the extreme. For example, from the observation that people often seem to make what the experimenter knows to be irrational decisions - because they are inconsistent (dependent on the way the decision problem is framed) or because they are clearly against the subjects' self interest, these behavioral economists would like to make paternalistic laws to guide people in their own interests to make "better" decisions. Science has become God and he wants to put Big Brother in charge. (see for example here.)

Harris's project is flawed before it gets started - it has two major flaws. 1. "well-being" is an amorphous, non-scientific concept. It is a futile attempt to objectify the subjective. We don't know and cannot know what it is that people "really want." To presume we do is to court extreme dangers of moral coercion; depriving people of moral autonomy. 2. Even if we could somehow determine what well-being is for each and every human being, we cannot assume that what enhances well-being is automatically moral. This is to illegitimately ignore the fact-value distinction. I mean one can make this assertion - that morality is simply the enhancement of well-being - but it is a lame assertion based simply on itself and nothing else but the belief that everyone would agree with it. I don't.

What supreme irony! To start a project aimed at dethroning dogmatic belief systems only to end up peddling another - one just as dangerous.