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.



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