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Science can’t determine Human Values

March 8, 2013

moral landscape, sam harrisSo I read through parts of the book, the moral landscape by Sam Harris. He claims that science can determine human values. His basic argument is that the only value worth pursuing is human well-being, and this is determined by the state of our brain.

He takes the inadequacy of the fact/value distinction as suggested by figures such as Hume, as allowing him to make these claims. The problem is that Hume’s moral theory was long ago superseded by much more subtle moral theories such as we can see in philosophers such as MaCintyre, Charles Taylor and Bernard Williams. Sam Harris does not address the current debate in moral philosophy, but the debate from some time ago. This is a typical error committed by people who are primarily educated as scientists but then later decide to dabble in philosophy. They are not up to date with the latest theory, but just take the most current common popular misconception about philosophy and argue against that.

Getting back to my point here. The reason I say science cannot determine human values is because we identify with the things we value most. They are not just ways of acting, they are ways of being. Our self hood is tied up with the things we value morally, and so it cannot be split apart from us as such and such a brain state. It cannot be objectified. It is something tied up with our basic subjectivity and awareness of the world around us.

It amazes me how many times and in how many ways scientists will bang their head against this brick wall. But what amazes me even more is how ignorant they can be of the latest philosophical theory. Choosing instead to target theories long superseded as if they have made some sort of advancement or had some sort of new insight. How long this kind of pointless and hopeless popular science dabbling in philosophy will continue I don’t know. I just know that it is not very good philosophy, because it is not well thought through and it is only interested in getting to one pre-decided conclusion, regardless of any thought processes, reasoning or arguments.

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