Friday, 6 September 2013

Sam Harris vs Sam Harris on morality

Moderator: Our two debaters here today are very well-known writers, bloggers and speaks on various subjects - morality, philosophy, science and religion. Today they challenge each other's views on the subject of morality.

Sam Harris: I believe it's obvious to any rational person that our minds are products of evolution and their thoughts and feelings are fully determined by physical laws.  This determinism is why I insist that there is no such thing as free will and why I suggest that human moral values can and should be determined by science.

Sam Harris: Hold on there a minute.  I think you are overreaching.  As I wrote in my blog entry "The Mystery of Consciousness", I don't accept that conscious experience can be fully explained by science.

Sam Harris: How is that relevant to a discussion of morality?

Sam Harris: Morality has everything to do with conscious experience.  We don't just know we are in pain, we feel pain and that is one way we can suffer.  Knowledge of pain alone doesn't cause suffering.

Sam Harris: But, using science we can determine if someone is feeling pain by examining their brain states using modern tools such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

Sam Harris:  I thought I had made clear my view that science can't fully explain consciousness.  So, you aren't going to be able to get at true conscious experience using scientific tools.

Sam Harris: That is just playing with words.  There is so much correlation between the results of scientific investigations into the way our bodies work and people's reports of pain that we can be confident about what science shows us.

Sam Harris: No - conscious awareness is what matters.  When some of that awareness is lacking in people with brain disorders the result is moral failings such as lack of empathy for others.  Empathy - one of the foundations of morality, is about what we feel when we find out about the suffering of others.

Sam Harris: Come on now, Sam.  You have just connected 'brain disorders' with 'empathy' - that contradicts your own position that science can't understand conscious experience.

Sam Harris: I said that science can't fully understand conscious experience.  I don't doubt it can make some progress, enough for some correlations; enough to identify people who have disorders of conscious awareness that reveal the vital part such awareness should have in moral questions.

Moderator: final statements please, Gentlemen.

Sam Harris: Science can determine what people will say they will experience when they experience suffering, and when their well-being is increased through the reduction of that suffering.  Science can and must be used to determine moral values.

Sam Harris:  Unless we can know what conscious awareness really is, we can never fully understand the nature of mental experiences; what it means to suffer; what it means to thrive.  And so, questions of morality will always remain to some degree purely subjective and so beyond science.

Moderator:  Thank you Sam, and Sam.  I can see that this debate will run and run.  Goodnight all.


Quine said...


Steve Zara said...

Thanks, but I don't think it's quite polished enough. But it was fun.