Saturday, September 4, 2010

Science Run Amok

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.

Aristotle (trans. W. D. Ross)

Over at Edge, Sam Harris writes on science as it may apply to morality. He raises many compelling issues, but his piece exemplifies the grievous attempt to extend the relentless rigor of science beyond its rightful purview. If nothing else, the article is worth reading for its sheer effrontery (leave aside the moral debates of three thousand years, it's really rather simple!).

Harris argues that the force of science may be brought to bear on the problem of morality in three respects, not only anthropologically (documentation of actual ethical practices), but also as regards the ends of morality (which he stipulates as the well-being of conscious creatures), and surprisingly the art of persuasion, that is, bringing the benighted into the orbit of the empirically right-thinking.

His method is to claim that since the methods of science (i.e. evidence, consistency, parsimony) depend on consensus, and morality depends on consensus, then they are parallel endeavors; that is, normative moral phenomena--the ways one should live--are objectively true or false in the fashion that physical states of affairs are true or false. In other words, one may dissent from scientific methods (appealing, presumably, to revelation or intuition) just as one may opt out of moral claims, but to do so, Harris implies, is to place oneself beyond the pale. He also draws an analogy with economics, suggesting that just as goods and services may (theoretically) be generated and distributed in an objectively optimal manner, so is there a neutral calculus of human well-being.

The problem is that one may recognize many modes of human well-being without falling into the mire of moral relativism. To be sure, we are not entirely adrift in ambiguity. It is uncontroversial, for instance, to suggest that the citizens of Switzerland are better off in absolute terms than those of North Korea, just as it is safe to say that Bach is superior to Kate Perry. However, these are extremes, and most moral distinctions are more subtle. Are Americans better or worse off on average than Germans? Is Bach superior to Schubert?

The real problem for Harris appears to be what to do with the outliers, that is, those unreconstructed folks who fall in with creationism, or those societies that do things like execute adulterers. But the problem is that those with whom we disagree do not generally object to human well-being; they merely assess it differently. Those who oppose abortion or even stem-cell research believe that a society in which post-conception Homo sapiens are not disposed of is, on the whole, a desirable one. Muslim societies that discriminate against women or execute adulterers believe that they do so for the average benefit of all. Even Hitler believed that he was adding to the sum total of moral goodness (of the human beings who mattered to him). Can the methods of science, as opposed to moral consensus, really prove otherwise?

If so, there would presumably be some foolproof method, as yet undiscovered, of ascertaining comparative well-being. Are Californians better off than New Yorkers? How about men and women? Doctors and lawyers? The very notion is absurd.

Unsurprisingly, given the ambit of this blog, the matter may be best approached through the lens of psychopathology. In the various realms of fact, of morality, and of aesthetics, there are those with whom we merely disagree and those who are indeed beyond the pale. For instance, the evidence supporting the human contributions to global warming is strong, such that those to disbelieve are suspect and perhaps perverse, but nothing more. However, those who hold that the moon landing was faked or that Barack Obama was born in Kenya are, properly speaking, delusional in the sense of the cultural fringe.

Similarly, Auschwitz and North Korea are examples of psychopathy and megalomania, respectively, both of which may be held to be forms of moral delusion. In contrast, those who object to abortion or secularism are those with alternative moral views. Except in jest, there is no such thing as aesthetic delusion, although it seems to be ubiquitous.

The problem with applying the authority of science to moral and aesthetic realms is twofold. First, the external world exists independently of us, and is has certain characteristics and laws that we come to understand more or less accurately. Science is supreme here--no other technique for fathoming external reality comes close. However, ethics and art are not external to us--they are generated by us, and are found after the fact to be more or less admired or salutary. In science consensus as to method is the means to an end, but in matters of morality and art it is consensus through and through.

The second problem is that science leads inexorably to technology; understanding here implies the power to control and manipulate. And unfortunately the history of trying to engineer consensus in morality and art where it does not naturally exist is not propitious. For when we apply technological methods not to external reality but to human reality (ourselves), strange things start to happen. Yes, human beings and societies have a material reality that is subject to science, but that reality also supersedes and frames the very undertaking of science. Ethics and art are not technical problems to be solved but perennially unfolding realities to be experienced. The moralist and the artist are gardeners, not machinists.


Novalis said...

I think I recognize the voice and the argument here, the same as those of E. O. Wilson's "Consilience," the argument that we can vault ourselves out of context and subjectivity into an abstract realm where not only scientific laws, but moral and aesthetic ones as well, are not merely compelling but are in fact incontrovertible.

Yet the parallel with psychological diagnosis holds. There is no doubt that from a neutral standpoint there is an objective manner in which brains work and produce more or less measurable outcomes. Morality and art do not pop into being from some postmodern limbo; there is a real human nature that generates these phenomena no less reliably than a mollusc secretes a shell.

Psychological diagnosis is the means by which a society declares different modes of mental functioning to be more or less desirable. The diagnostician's role is to identify the mode in as empirical fashion as possible (that is to say, in the still current psychiatric reality, not very). But organic cultural consensus, not science, dictates who will be deemed sick and whether they require treatment, and what kind, etc.

Philosophers, politicians, critics, teachers, priests: these are the means by which a society negotiates its values. In comparison, scientists are more like plumbers, enabling us to better manipulate the environment. Doctors partake of both roles; the science of medicine pertains chiefly to measurable diagnosis and empirical treatment, which are only tangentially related to health policy and other broad issues. Psychiatry's problem is that it still has no little empirical science, such that psychiatrists practically function much more as philosophers, teachers, or (secular) clergy.

We see ever more frantic efforts to shore up values either through science or religion because this is an era in which cultural consensus has broken down. There may eventually be a global moral order, but it won't come about through high-handed scientific decrees.

Dr X said...

An insightful, cogent response to Harris. As I read, I kept highlighting and copying sentences while thinking: here you identify the nub of the problem. But as I continued to read, I found yet more that was persuasive. After reading the entire post and your comment, I found the distinction between consensus in science and consensus in morality and art the most convincing. I don't see a way for Harris to overcome this objection, but somehow I imagine that he would find an answer that would be satisfactory for Sam Harris.

I guess I'm reacting to the effrontery, as well. I must say I laughed about his Asperger's statement because that is exactly what had occurred to me, though I don't pretend to be diagnosing Harris. The fact that he recognized this possibility suggests to me that it wouldn't apply. Yet I'm left with a sense that there is a disconnect for him regarding consensus through and through on moral matters.