Saturday, March 22, 2014

Can morality be reduced to a scientific description? - part 1

Richard Carrier comments on Sam Harris' position on the ability of science to eventually determine morality, what is right and wrong. This implies that there is no need to appeal to anything supernatural for the source of morality. In commenting on Harris' position, Carrier states the premise that "Morals and values are physically dependent (without remainder) on the nature of any would-be moral agent (such that given the nature of an agent, a certain set of values will necessarily obtain, and those values will then entail a certain set of morals)."

This could be rephrased to say: Values are obtained by an agent based on the nature of the agent. Those values will then entail a certain set of morals. Therefore, morality and values are physically dependent on the nature of the moral agent.

The main point of the premise is that morals and values are physically dependent on the experience of the agent. Carrier adds that these experiences are "constrained (and thus determined) by natural physical laws and objects (the furniture of the universe and how it behaves)." There is an implication, whether intended or not, that without the agent's physical experience, morals and values wouldn't exist. Harris' initial statement cited by Carrier implies the same thing; "Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds - and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe."

It can certainly be said that without our own existence, we would not know of morality because there would be no agents for morality to be obtained by. However, is it true that if we did not exist, morality would necessarily not exist? Is it possible that morality is not produced by our existence but obtained by the agent through some kind of perception?

The proponent of physicalism in the philosophy of science would probably maintain that there is no need to appeal to any kind of perception of morality in agents from an external source because agents are the product of the physical, empirical universe. Mind does not really exist in and of itself. It is instead a product of various neural and cognitive functions. Thus, mental and emotional states or conditions are derived from processes that exist purely at the physical level. A neurochemical process takes place and a mental result follows. Based on responses to stimuli, these results coalesce into beliefs and experiences. Eventually, the process is complex enough that a personal value system develops. When the values of one agent interact with the same from other agents, morality begins to develop.

The problem with this stance is that it does not exist unchallenged, particularly from a dualist perspective. The dualist does not agree that a person is merely the sum of their physical constituents. There is something numinous about a person, regardless of what nomenclature is invoked - mind, soul, spirit, the transcendent, etc. The dualist maintains that the physical body is instructed by the mind. For example, in the case of intentionality, a person intends to do something and the body then follows. The proponent of physicalism will obviously object to such a stance because the language refers to something not empirical and therefore, not capable of being quantified. The dualist has no problem with this because it is numinous, it does not need to be empirically quantified for us to know that it exists.

One approach to this dilemma is that either physicalism is true or dualism is true. There may be excellent reasons to believe that dualism is the case but, they will be less empirical and more ethereal. Thus, if the two are pitted against each other, dualism will have to at least partially turn to the language of metaphysics for description whereas physicalism will not. The language of metaphysics is eschewed by the physicalist because of the subjective nature of that language. Examples of such language might be intentionality, perception, identity, etc. Any resolution of this duel between physicalism and dualism hinges on each side solving a critique. The physicalist charges the dualist to provide proof that the metaphysical examples just listed absolutely cannot be reduced to the language of science. If it remains that the dualist examples just listed can indeed be unequivocally explained by science, then dualism can be jettisoned as superfluous. The physicalist will have to answer the dualist charge why metaphysics absolutely cannot be invoked in explaining these phenomena. Both sides can point to examples of how their view has contributed to the advancement of knowledge about the evidential matter of experience either arising from physicalism or dualism.

Another alternative is that both physicalism and dualism are true in a certain sense. It could be the case that physicalism describes conditions to a degree while dualism remains true as well. Physicalism might have to be redefined as soft physicalism in that it would allow for the metaphysical existence of dualism as opposed to outright denying it's existence, i.e. hard physicalism. One criticism of this approach is that the point of such a harmony vitiates both positions. What is the point of physicalism if it remains true that there is a spirit or soul? The entire empirical enterprise of explaining outcomes physically is lost. A response could be that physicalism is still needed to describe the physical process of how humans operate, regardless of any mind involved. This is not terribly different than counseling in which the counselor might deal with any chemical effects on the brain while still dealing with the mental and emotional experiences. The physicalist approach (assessing the situation from a purely empirical point of view) was still needed in order to diagnose the condition, formulate a chemical intervention and prescribe the proper application of it. However, the medicine does not resolve all emotional problems by itself. Another criticism harkens back to Descartes' pineal gland solution to the problem of interaction between the mind and the body. He speculated that the pineal gland is what facilitated the interaction between body and soul. When the mind had a thought or desire, it was delivered to the brain through the pineal gland for the body to act upon. This problem has not be resolved by dualists. Even so, that does not mean it can't be the case. In fact, it provides a reasonable explanation of experience even if the precise method of interaction remains a mystery. The dualist would be philosophically justified in saying that empirical science is not needed to verify this state of affairs since the mind is beyond the purview of science. Physicalists are not willing to concede that point. If the dualist says that the explanation of the interaction between body and soul is not scientific because of a perceived limitation of science, the physicalism proponent will say that is a failure of the dualist position in that it is "cooking the evidence." In other words, the dualist has rigged the conditions of the situation such that their explanation is more viable.

Physicalism will never be able to disprove dualism. (P4) Even if physicalism can ultimately explain all human experience in the language of science, that would still not constitute a proof that there is no mind or nothing numinous about a person. The most a physicalist could say is that dualism is superfluous. On the other hand, dualism will always be able to coexist with physicalism, as long as the physicalism is not a "hard" physicalism that positively precludes any allowance for something non-physical. (P1) Moreover, dualism can forward the premise that there are good reasons to believe that dualism is the case even if those reasons are metaphysical and ultimately subjective. (P2) Thus, in order for the Carrier/Harris premise to be the case, physicalism would have to completely and unequivocally show that dualism is not possible. (P3) Since it remains possible that both (soft) physicalism and dualism can coexist, it remains that morality can arise from numinous revelation rather than merely as a response to stimuli and resultant neural processes. Consequently, morals and values can potentially arise from something other than the experience of the agent (C1). This could be formally expressed:

P1. Dualism can exist in concert with (soft) physicalism.
P2. Dualism can advance reasons for non-physical aspects of existence, even if those reasons are rejected by physicalists (buttressed by P4).
P3. Dualism would have to be completely vitiated in order for a physicalist paradigm to only be the case.
P4. Dualism cannot be completely vitiated such that only physicalism is the case.
C1. It remains possible that since dualism can possibly exist, morals can possibly be attained through non-physical means.

It was earlier asked if morals could possibly exist even if the experiencing agent did not. The conclusion just drawn (C1) leaves open the possibility that morals can exist apart from the experiencing agent. Morals and values are not necessarily dependent on the agent for them to be obtained by.

Carrier's assertion that "The nature of an agent, the desires of conscious beings, and the laws of nature are all matter of fact subjectable to empirical scientific inquiry and discovery. (Whether this has been done or not i.e. this is a claim to what science could do, not to what science has already done.)" is hopelessly problematic and little more than provocation. First, it has already been established that dualism proponents do not agree with this stance. In order for Carrier's overreaching premise to have certain validity, physicalism would have to completely vitiate dualism. Otherwise, it always remains possible that there is a numinous source of morality, that morals are not "constrained (and thus determined) by natural physical laws and objects (the furniture of the universe and how it behaves)." Second, Carrier's qualifier in parentheses unwittingly undermines his own premise; "Whether this has been done or not i.e. this is a claim to what science could do, not to what science has already done." If his qualifier has not been achieved by science, then the premise is completely unsubstantiated. If it remains possible that science could make such a determination, then it is also possible that science could not make such a determination. This is called smuggled in authority. He is claiming as scientific fact something that has not been factually established by science. In fact, some philosophers of science maintain that this is indeed something beyond the purview of science, in spite of Carrier's claim to the contrary (that science allegedly can quantify it, therefore it must be true). In this sense, Carrier's argument is whistling past the graveyard. There is an entire discipline of philosophy, the philosophy of science, that is engaged in realism vs antirealism, physicalism vs dualism, demarcation problem and theory ladenness of science debates. To assert by fiat a philosophical argument that takes one side in a disputed matter is just presumptuous.


This can parenthetically lead to an explanation of something mentioned in the Harris quote, that the experience of well-being and suffering lead to the development of values and morals. (continued in part 2)

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