Thursday, 3 January 2008

BB2: Informal Discussion Session 1, First Day

[This is the informal question and answers discussions in session 1 of 2, on the first day of the The Science Network's Beyond Belief Enlightenment 2.0 conference. An introduction and list of all reviews can be found at BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction]

These discussions can be found at:
Given that the first informal question and answer session was immediately after Edward Slingerland's deliberately controversial talk, it is not surprising that the main response was over his argument that the Enlightenment could not get rid of ontological claims, having only metaphysical grounds and no scientific validity. This was still the same theme after Donald Rutherford's talk, which dovetailed nicely adding happiness into the mix. Various responses, grouped by themes, were:

Ronald de Sousa said that having ToM (Theory of Mind) does not mean it should be applicable to non-ToM entities and, yes, we can confuse agents (which have ToM) with non-agents (which do not, such as in animism, spirits and so on) but this does not make ToM itself a metaphysical postulate, just that it can mistakenly but not necessarily generate metaphysical claims. On the other hand, Margaret Jacob is quite prepared to let go of ToM, saying this reminds her of the xian concept that the idea of god is innate - well travel literature undid that (other religions do not have god such as Buddhism and Taoism). She imagines that "travel in the mind" will, in turn, undo ToM.

Both the Churchlands, who, incidentally reject ToM in their eliminative materialism model of the "mind", asserted that human rights are not metaphysical but pragmatic and recommended avoid the "skeptical pit" over values. Looking at history as a series of experiments about how human affairs have been organized, human rights is the result of such wisdom about how to best organize human affairs. No leaps of faith required. Lee Silver also questioned whether human rights were non-scientific. He argued that these are based on the combination of culture and genes/instincts and are therefore not transcendental. For example we know we have instincts and there is science behind that. Dan Dennett argued by a metaphor with myopia, which we can correct this wearing eyeglasses. Similarly with human culture, we can recognize our defects that our evolved nature has given us and apply corrections. Hume's sympathies (what we would call today empathy) are the basis from which we add artificial virtues, in a great turn of phrase from Dennett "eyeglasses for the soul" and he emphasizes the issue is political not scientific.

Scot Atran sums up these two related threads of ToM and human rights with "metaphysical postulates conform to evolution or can be made to conform with spectacles... they win in history when compared to tyranny, with or without spectacles." He adds that human rights not yet been shown to succeed however good idea we think they are. As for ToM, he asserts it is a scientific postulate and it may go away - in the light of future discoveries - but it is not a metaphysical postulate

Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard, focuses on the question of happiness and insists it is important in the epicurean sense. He responds to Singer's comment that Enlightenment 2.0 is unlike any religion since it has no ritual, by noting that while ritual is not a guarantor of lack of suffering or deliverance of happiness, it still can be a component of the Enlightenment and this does not mean just weddings and funerals. Darrin McMahon looked at happiness too observing there was the problem of a Jacobean legislated (almost) common happiness preached in sermons in former catholic churches now called "temples of reason" - whilst the Terrors were occurring! On a historical level happiness can been seen to have quasi-religious dimensions investing secular values with sacred meaning, which can become dangerous as was the case of the Jacobeans and also in Marxism, so becoming a secular religion. Dennett had noted that whilst a sacred value is one you feel uncomfortable challenging - with the enlightenment you challenge them nonetheless.

Sam Harris focused, correctly in my view, on what underlies all the above debate about metaphysical claims, human rights, happiness, ritual and the sacred. The answer is moral realism - a position for one reason or another all the above corresponds seemed either uncomfortable to assert or do not hold. Harris stated that to be a moral realist you need two principles 1. to believe that morality is questions about suffering and happiness 2. to believe there are right and wrong answers. Now with (2) you can be a realist and there is no reason to imagine that aren't facts to be there to be found.

There did seem to be some waffling around this basic point, confidently made by Harris. Another example of this was Michael Shermer saying that when morality comes up he has to respond to a claim that "god did it" with a 15 to 20 minute scientific talk not so far off these recent speakers. The problem with this is that enlightenment thinkers are basically more honest in appraising a moral system and are aware of its strengths and weaknesses, whereas classical thinkers have no qualms here and can happily assert metaphysical claims without worrying about philosophical dilemmas and lack of an empirical explanation. My approach would be to not change the subject when a claim such as "god did it" is posited but challenge this directly.We should all be familiar with the weaknesses of that position, such as Socrates' Euthyphro dilemma and so on. If we have learnt anything from the "New Atheism" is we can now confidently challenge theists for the burden of proof. Not by disproving god in this case, but by showing the gross inadequacy of Divine Command Theory. Is it rude? Well it is less rude than asserting or implying that atheists have no morality which usually underlies these conversations.

What concerned me in all this debate is the lack of confidence in asserting the superiority of a non-supernatural based morality or some equivalent. Of course here Edward Slingerland has taken a non-cognitivist view as when he responds that human rights are not derived from evolution nor are scientific. Within this enlightenment group and, in general, there is internal debate over the fact-value distinction and Slingerland is taking the hard line logical positivist and a priori position that there is no possible solution - bu this is most certainly a metaphysical position! Regardless this should not disable debate with theists, who have no legs to stand on. Just as Dawkins and Gould were highly opposed and exchanged many polemics within Darwinian biology, they were still, correctly, united against creationism, we need something similar here. The simplest is to be united in the well known criticisms of Divine Command Theory, as in my recommendation to how Shermer should respond to "god did it" claims in debating morality with theists.

Now with respect to an ethical approach that an enlightenment worldview can recommend, we have a choice, most of which are far superior to Divine Command Theory, although none are without flaws. I suggest the speaker chose one and stick to it confidently! As much as I am particularly dubious about happiness metrics and the like, I would prefer these speakers to assert this confidently and clearly rather than as they, bar Harris, responded. Still, looking at happiness and bearing in mind the lesson from the Jacobeans, I prefer to see such challenges are best solved by each individual - for them to discover and implement the best way they believe they can flourish, in other words it should be outside the domain of a secular society, it is a private choice.

However what we must include is means of dealing with the harms that can be caused by some of these methods of achieving individual flourishment. These harms can be measured and hence cashed out in physical terms, so I agree with Harris in recommending moral realism but would modify his first principle to 1a. secular or public sphere morality is about questions of harm. These are matters of fact, the debate revolving around the measurement and scope of the harms under scrutiny and the resolution of conflicting harms. Harm only means something in relation to human agents whether they are the subject or object of the harm. The fact-value distinction is avoided here as we can scientifically, historically and politically "describe prescriptions" without automatically "prescribing descriptions". Instead the latter prescriptions are conditional recommendations. Human rights is an answer to the question that most people over many cultures ask for what they want in their society - to be free to live, not be tortured, be educated, not enslaved, be protected from criminals, not be falsely imprisoned, keep their health, not be discriminated against and so on. Empirical research can see how to best implement these and related ideas successfully in societies. No metaphysics required!