Monthly Archives: June 2014

Some Thoughts on Sam Harris’ Response to Ryan Born’s Critique

A while ago, Ryan Born won the award for writing the best essay against Sam Harris’ position that science answers moral questions. Sam Harris wrote a reply to Born’s critique and I must say that I’m not very impressed. I read his reply two-thirds of the way until I grew tired of the rudimentary mistakes. Some of the mistakes in Harris’ reply are worth discussing, which is what I’m intending to do in this blog entry. I’m not going to write an exhaustive criticism of Sam Harris’ response to Ryan Born’s critique. Instead, I’m going to focus on Harris’ arguments for his definition of “Science”.

Harris appears to understand the meaning of the term “Science” in a very broad manner. In fact, it’s so broad that Harris doesn’t think there is that much of a fundamental difference between a plumber and a professional scientist. The boundary between a plumber and a professional scientist is merely conventional kind that is there for a practical purpose. What a plumber and a professional scientist have in common is that they use the same kind of processes of thought and observation:

“For practical reasons, it is often necessary to draw boundaries between academic disciplines, but physicists, chemists, biologists, and psychologists rely on the same processes of thought and observation that govern all our efforts to stay in touch with reality.”

Elsewhere, Harris thinks that anyone who does “Science” is relying on empirical and logical intuitions, which is why he expresses surprise at his critics’ reaction:

“To my surprise, many people think about science primarily in terms of academic titles, budgets, and architecture, and not in terms of the logical and empirical intuitions that allow us to form justified beliefs about the world.”

What is really unclear to me is whether or not the processes of thought and observation are the same as the “empirical and logical intuitions”. I will mention this perplexity later in the essay. Harris sums up his view as follows:

“I am, in essence, defending the unity of knowledge—the idea that the boundaries between disciplines are mere conventions and that we inhabit a single epistemic sphere in which to form true beliefs about the world. “

Harris thinks that this claim “remains a controversial thesis”. However, his thesis makes two claims. The first claim is that the boundaries between disciplines are merely conventional. I agree that this claim is controversial for his critics. The second claim (i.e. “we inhabit a single epistemic sphere in which to form true beliefs about the world”), on the other hand, is quite uncontroversial. If “a single epistemic sphere” means common processes of thoughts and observations that we apply to the world, then it is trivially true that we inhabit the same universe and apply our thinking processes to it. Unless one is a relativist or a philosophical skeptic of some sort, there is little or no reason to reject the second claim. However, to be charitable, I think what Harris has in mind is that the second claim is suppose to explain the feature of unity that underlies all knowledge in spite of conventional boundaries. If this is the case, then there are some objections.

First, Harris does not explicate what kind of processes of thought and observation are being used. He does say that we use “logical and empirical intuitions”, so perhaps these are the processes he has in mind, but he doesn’t clarify the meaning of “logical and empirical intuitions”. Again, to be charitable, perhaps these processes are reasoning processes that use induction, deduction, and abduction. If this is the correct interpretation, then Harris needs to argue why these processes are necessary and sufficient conditions for doing science. After all, Harris does think that anything that consists of using these processes (e.g. plumbing) qualifies as doing science.

Second, Harris’ term “Unity of Knowledge” is unclear. The term “Unity of Knowledge” has a technical meaning in Philosophy of Science. Unity of Knowledge (a.k.a. Consilience) means connecting different facts across different disciplines together based on a common theoretical groundwork or explanation. In others, there is a unity of knowledge if one has a theory that explains a variety of facts from different disciplines. For example, Newton’s theory of gravity explains a variety of facts from tidal waves on Earth (Oceanography) to the planetary motions (Astronomy).  Darwin’s theory of evolution also explains a variety of facts from diversity of organisms in the animal kingdom (Zoology) to the development of viruses (virology). What both theories have in common is that they have a wide explanatory scope that can account for a variety of phenomena studied by different disciplines. In this sense, these theories bring unity among scientific disciplines. However, the unity of Knowledge that Harris proposes is nowhere interesting or deep like one I just explained. Instead, Harris merely states that what bring unity to knowledge is that we all live in the same universe and acquire true beliefs about it by using reasons and observations. Unless one is a philosophical skeptic or a radical relativist (very few people fall under those labels), no one would reasonably deny that claim. It’s just trivially true that we live in the same universe and acquire some true beliefs about it with at least some effort of thought and observation. The “unity of knowledge” in Harris’ sense is trifling and uninteresting. It’s so uninteresting that I have a hard time understanding how that justifies the first claim that the boundaries are merely conventional.

Third, Harris seems unaware of the concept of levels of descriptions. What makes these disciplines different from one another is that they are different levels of description of the universe. Quantum mechanics is the lowest level of description that describes or explains sub-atomic particles. Chemistry explains or describes the elements from the periodic table, which is slightly above Quantum Mechanics. Biology explains or describes carbon-based living organisms (for now), which is above Chemistry. Neuroscience describes or explains the structure and operation of the brain, which makes it a subset of biology. Psychology goes a bit higher to explain how cognitive processes work. Above psychology we have Economics and Sociology to explain how individual cognitive agents interact with each other to form a society with an economic system and complex set of cultural norms/values. Concepts or vocabularies that we find in quantum mechanics simply don’t extend beyond it to Economics. This is because Economics describes human agents (a.k.a. consumers and profiteers) with preferences (i.e. Rational Choice Theory), whereas Quantum mechanics describes sub-atomic particles.

Fourth, Harris’ understanding of the meaning of “science” exacerbates the demarcation problem. The demarcation problem is the problem of finding a principled way of identifying a fundamental difference between science and pseudoscience. It’s kind of like finding a principled difference between Art and soft pornography (both consist of visual representations of nudity). If science just means that we apply observation and reason, then a pseudoscience like  Phrenology is on a par with a science like Neuroscience. After all, the founder of phrenology did try to apply reasoning and observation (no matter how flawed) to come to his conclusion about the structure of the mind to explain personalities. Likewise, neuroscientists apply observation and reasoning (with the help of the MRI scan) to come to their own conclusions about the mind. If Harris’ definition of science is correct, then both phrenology and neuroscience qualify as science. Harris could argue that what makes something a pseudoscience is the application of poor reasoning and observation. Phrenology is just a case of poor reasoning and observation, so it is a pseudoscience. However, any honest scientist will tell you that there are plenty of poor reasoning and observation in their field. That is why scientists have peer review and meta-analysis to assess the quality of their scientific research. However, even meta-analysis and peer-review can suffer from cases of bad reasoning and observation too.

What is essentially wrong with Harris’ theses is that they are both trifling and false. It is trifling because the unity of knowledge that Harris mentions is so broad that it isn’t as deep as the consilience of knowledge. It is false because the boundaries between disciplines can be explained by appealing to the concept of the levels of descriptions. If Harris learns about W.V. Quine, he would probably avoid the mistake of broadening his definition of science. Ironically, Harris’ notion of science is almost Quinean. However, Quine did add a qualification: “The scientist is indistinguishable from the common man in his sense of evidence, except that the scientist is more careful” (The Scope and Language of Science, 1957). In other words, science is different from ordinary knowledge insofar as it systematizes knowledge by adding more rigor to reason and observation. This may seem like it supports Harris’ view of science, but in fact it does not. At the very least, Quine wouldn’t consider ordinary knowledge to be a science. Harris, on the other hand, does not shy away from calling ordinary knowledge a kind of science. In this sense, Harris is barely half right.


Should We Abandon the term “Free Will”?

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language”- Wittgenstein 

Recently, Daniel Dennett decided to abandon the term “Free Will” in favor of “Moral Responsibility”. His decision, however, has more or less to do with terminology of “free will” than the more substantive concept of “free will”. So, to avoid a possible misunderstanding, he really hasn’t abandoned compatibilism, but slightly reformulated a motivation for it. The motivation is by reformulating the question from “Do we have free-will” to “Do we have moral responsibility”. I think I agree with Dennett’s decision to reformulate the question. When the first question is asked, the philosophical community would most likely answer “yes, we do have free will in a compatibilist sense”, however the public would give polarized reactions between hard determinism and libertarianism. When one tries to present compatibilism to the public, most dismiss it as not really being committed to free-will or accuse it of reducing the free-will debate into a terminological issue. The second question (“Do we have moral responsibility?”),  on the other hand, probably won’t elicit the polarized reactions, since it appears to be asking a slightly different question.

I think Dennett’s decision to abandon the term “free will” is understandable and tactically sound. By “tactically sound”, I mean that Dennett’s rhetorical strategy to get his audience to consider the compatibilist concept behind the term “free will” is probably on the right track. However, while I’m inclined to agree with Dennett’s approach from a pragmatic or tactical point of view , I’m also concerned whether or not his abandonment of the term “free will” is warranted in a philosophical sense. One of Dennett’s reason for abandoning the term “free will” is that it connotes a libertarian notion of free will. When you hear the word “free will”, the  first thought that most likely comes to your mind (assuming that you haven’t studied the philosophical debate about free will) would be a libertarian intuition of free will. Moreover, its very hard to convince someone that the term “free will” need not be about that intuition. When you try to convince people that the term “free will” can also refer to a non-libertarian conception of free-will, many would insist that it’s not really “free will” at all. The association between the term “free will” and the libertarian intuition about it is very much ingrained into most of our minds. It’s hard to convince them to think otherwise (no pun intended…). So, someone like Dennett, who wants to convince his audience about the truth of compatibilism, would abandon the term “free will” in favor of another term “moral responsibility” in order to get people to think about the debate a little differently.

This is all well and good from a pragmatic standpoint, but there are some things I want to point out. Firstly, abandoning the term on the basis of its connotation doesn’t seem like a very strong reason. After all, there is a difference between a connotation and a definition of any word. A connotation elicits initial reaction or thought about a meaning or idea associated with the word, whereas a definition of a word is the actual meaning or concepts that constitute that word. Connotations have little or no philosophical relevance, since it’s really the definitions that is important to consider. “Consciousness”, for example, has this popular connotation that ranges from new age woo woo to dualistic intuition about mental states. However, in philosophy of mind, philosophers are debating about the theoretical definition  of “consciousness”; connotations are beside the point. Should we abandon the term “consciousness” to a bunch of dualists and adopt another term? So far, Dennett hasn’t abandoned the term “consciousness” simply because of its connotation.

To use another example, the term “morality” connotes conventional absolutist morality taught by religions. This connotation is quite popular among many people, but should atheists abandon the term “morality” for the religious populace in favor of another term? I don’t think so, since many atheists do think that there are right” and “wrong actions independently of God’s command. Many atheists will simply deny that popular connotation as a definition of morality. Furthermore, should atheists stop using the term “atheist” due to its negative connotation that is popular among people who know little about atheism? Perhaps some would like to, but I like to keep the term “atheism” since I think its definition is a rejection of the belief of the existence of God, rather than a sociopathic killer who lacks a moral compass.

Perhaps we can use a political example. I have a friend who is a liberal (i.e. he’s critical of U.S. foreign policy, loves to listen to Chomsky, opposes capital punishment, likes diversity, etc.) but grew to hate the term “liberal”, because for him it connotes a bunch of white liberals and the media that pay lip service to liberal values, but end up doing very little for minorities and women. So, he stopped calling himself “liberal” in favor of the term “reformed”. It’s really his decision about what to call himself, but it doesn’t seem warranted to abandon the term “liberal” due to how many self-professed liberals act anymore than someone abandoning the term “Christian” due to how many self-professed Christians act.

Lastly, I think Dennet’s question “Do we have moral responsibility” is very different from “Do we have free will”. Dennett said that he only changed the “verbiage” than the subject, but in some subtle sense I think there is a difference between two questions “Do we have free will” and “Do we have moral responsibility”. The former is asking a metaphysical question, whereas the latter is asking a basic normative question. So, abandoning the term “free will” to replace it with another term “moral responsibility” seems to do more than just replace the verbiage. However, Dennett could argue that the question “Does moral responsibility exist?” is in fact a metaphysical question at the level of social ontology. In other words, he thinks that moral responsibility is a social construct (i.e. like President of the United States or the Constitution) that derives from our natural capacity to participate in society as competent rational agents. However, I think this possible reply misunderstands what “moral responsibility” means. “Moral responsibility” has little to do with what exists in the fabric of society, but more or less predicated on what one ought to do if one wants to be moral. So, I think changing the question from “Does Free Will exist?” to “Does Moral Responsibility exist?” potentially changes the subject.

Someone could complain that this entire blog post is meddling in terminological issues or semantics. I think there is a point to that complaint insofar as my blog entry does dispute about terminologies, but I don’t think it is entirely fruitless. Moreover, I don’t think this dispute it merely terminological. If a term “X” refers to an observable phenomenon “A” and two parties want to know what constitutes that phenomenon “A”, but they have contrary conceptions about it, can they still use the term “X”? I think so. After all, what is not at dispute is the use of the term “X”, but the phenomenon “A”. For example, in the past biologists obviously agreed that life exists, but there use to be two opposing views: materialism and vitalism. On one hand, you had people who thought that life can be explained in a mechanistic biochemical terms. On the other hand, you had people who thought there was an essence or vital spirit that constitutes the intrinsic nature of life. Eventually, the materialists ultimately won when they discovered the DNA. Nonetheless, both materialists and vitalists could use the term “life” to refer to a phenomenon of living organisms, but dispute about their nature. Likewise, I think compatibilists and libertarians can agree that “free will” refers to an introspective or first person phenomenon of what looks like choosing or deciding an option among others, but disagree about the nature of that phenomenon.

For many people, this introspective phenomenon really looks like a compelling case of libertarian free will just as an observable phenomenon of the sunrise or sunset looked like a case of the Geocentric model of the solar system. Even after Galileo showed that the geocentric model is false, people nonetheless continued to think that it’s appropriate to call the phenomena “sunset” or “sunrise”. Likewise, I think  the term “free will” remains appropriate even after we show that this introspective phenomenon is not really the case of libertarianism.

I think the term “free will” may be worth keeping. Moreover, I don’t think compatibilists and libertarians are talking past each other. Both agree that there is an introspective phenomenon of what seems like (from a first person point of view) choosing or deciding an option among other possible options. The disagreement lies in what actually constitutes or underlies that phenomenon.

My Sketchy Naturalistic Worldview

Naturalism is hard to define, since it can mean anything from a substantive metaphysical worldview (i.e. Ontric Structural Realism) to a body of scientific methods. Philosophers tend to make a distinction between metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism. The former is a monistic position that only Nature exists, whereas the supernatural entities do not exist. The latter is more or less about the scientific methods we use to understand the natural world without presupposing supernatural entities. Many philosophers call themselves naturalists, but what a “naturalist” means can vary among individuals. My naturalistic worldview is more or less inspired and informed by Spinoza, who was often called a pantheist by his critics. Spinoza, however, tells his friend in a correspondence that: “as to the view of certain people that I identify God with Nature (taken as a kind of mass or corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken.” Spinoza does not believe God to be a corporeally composite universe, but rather an “eternal substance” or unified principle that encapsulates the very nature of existence. The physical universe is just an ephemeral manifestation of an underlying process.

I don’t entirely agree with Spinoza’s metaphysics, but I think the spirit of his metaphysics is on the right track. What I think Spinoza got right is that the reality we live in is a coherent  self-sufficient reality. What this means is that all parts are arranged together in a unified whole ( called “Nature”) according to its own fundamental laws and structure (this is neutral between whether or not such laws or humean or non-humean). Nature is coherent insofar as every part is interconnected with each other as a multifaceted nexus and self-sufficient insofar as it acts only from its own structure and laws. Consequently, nothing in Nature transcends it, since it encompasses everything. Whatever exists must exist in Nature. In effect it is explained in a relevant context of Nature. What this also means is that we do not need a transcendental explanation at all. Some (especially theists) might ask how Nature came into existence. I won’t give a substantive and well argued answer to that question in this entry, but I do lean to an idea that some things are brute facts. Nature’s fundamental structure may just be a brute fact that necessitates explanations, but prior to itself there is no causal explanation. This means that unlike Spinoza I’m not necessarily committed to the principle of sufficient reason. This doesn’t mean that the universe does not have a beginning. It probably does, but that doesn’t show that it has a cause in a way that individual existing entities have cause. Nature just might be a self-contained system that does not require an explanation from beyond.

This is just my very sketchy conceptual scheme of Naturalism. I’m still not sure how mathematical sets, moral facts, consciousness, intentionality, and such can fit into this scheme, but I can only assume that they must (for now).