Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions (TED Talk)

It is thought that science has no opinion over questions of right or wrong. Science will never answer the most important questions in life. Harris argues that this is actually a dangerous illusion.

They say that science cannot deal with morality because it deals with facts, and facts and values are in different spheres. A description of the way the world is, cannot tell us how it ought to be.

But there is no version of human morality that at some level doesn’t come down to a fact which is based on our conscious experience. Why don’t we feel sad for rocks? And why do we feel more empathy for apes than we do for ants? It’s because of facts – we believe these things to hold a certain amount of life experience similar to our own. But we could be wrong about these fundamental judgements, we may have got the facts wrong, which would lead to a different version of our morality.

The understanding of our brains is still a new science

It holds the potential to help us understand things such as morality – because our culture has the ability to change our brains. For example the suicide bomber is led to believe that blowing himself up is a good thing, his culture has imprinted this onto his brain, in effect altering his brain state. The more we understand our minds, the more we can understand these changes.

Perhaps there are states of mind which we have yet to access, or perhaps because of our minds structure we can never access.

Is there one right food to eat? Clearly there are a range of foods and a range of answers here – but it doesn’t mean there are no truths to be known about human nutrition, we know the boundaries. We can tell that some things are just plain bad for us, and these are facts.

Take the case of women

Some cultures believe they should be covered up from top to bottom in a veil, yet in Boston or San Francisco we don’t believe this. Some might wonder,

“who are we to say what other ancient cultures should or should not do?”

Who are we to say they are wrong to beat them with steel cables, or throw battery acid into their faces if they decline the privilege of being dressed in this way?

But hold on. Who are we to pretend we know so little about human life to say we cannot judge a practice like this? This is wrong to ignore, because we know enough about our well being to know this is not a good thing.

What about a culture where a father’s daughter is raped, and his first reaction is he wants to kill the daughter? It’s important to stop and think about that, let it sink in for a moment. Can you imagine your own daughter being raped, and having the reaction that you are now shamed and must kill your daughter?

What are the chances that this represents a peak of human flourishing?

It’s not to say that the West has the perfect solution. But there is a spectrum, and we need to find somewhere better on that spectrum between these extremes which we have today.

How did we let morality off the hook when it comes to serious debate?

If you show up at a string theory convention, and say that you think it’s a load of crap – what would happen? Firstly, if you’re not a serious physicist, you’d be laughed at or dismissed. Why? Because unless you have the domain expertise, you cannot seriously play a role in the discussion. That’s why we have experts in physics, in biology, in computing. How did we reach a point where moral questions do not have to abide by the same standards?

We think that anybody, from any culture, has an equal right in the discussion about morality, even if we think their fundamental positions are so skewed. Do we think the Taliban has an opinion on string theory? And would we take it seriously? No. Because they have no domain expertise. Why is it not any less obvious on the subject of human well being?

There are right or wrong answers to human well being and flourishing. And morality relates to that domain of facts.

We can no longer tolerate vastly different notions of human well being, any more than we can tolerate vastly different notions of air safety or the construction of tall buildings.

The questions of human well bring have answers, and we must converge on those facts which we know.

In summary, this talk is sensational, profoundly important, and extremely well delivered.

(Part of TED a day for June)

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