Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theory

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Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theory

#1  Postby Hugin » Feb 02, 2011 10:07 am

From Science and Ethics:

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.


It's somewhat distressing that Harris keeps insisting that science can decide what we ought to value. The distinction between facts and values is well-known. That's why there are ethical committees trying to decide how to use new scientific findings on controversial issues - it simply can't be decided by science.

In economics you differentiate between positive economics and normative economics, where the first attempts to express statements of facts ("If you do policy X, thing Y will happen."), and the other expresses value judgements ("In a good society, policy X is adopted."). According to Harris, this distinction doesn't exist, yet it's obvious that it does!
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#2  Postby jamest » Feb 04, 2011 12:38 am

Hugin wrote:From Science and Ethics:

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.

Which hole did he pluck that from?

... That is a principle which is not given unto the mind by the environment itself. Therefore, the guy is talking bollocks. Simple. How do these idiots become so well-known? I don't gettit.
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#3  Postby VazScep » Feb 04, 2011 11:10 am

jamest wrote:
Hugin wrote:From Science and Ethics:

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.

Which hole did he pluck that from?

... That is a principle which is not given unto the mind by the environment itself. Therefore, the guy is talking bollocks. Simple. How do these idiots become so well-known? I don't gettit.
By inventing type theory to deal explicitly with such self-referential contradictions?
Here we go again. First, we discover recursion.
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#4  Postby jamest » Feb 04, 2011 11:40 am

VazScep wrote:
jamest wrote:
Hugin wrote:From Science and Ethics:


Which hole did he pluck that from?

... That is a principle which is not given unto the mind by the environment itself. Therefore, the guy is talking bollocks. Simple. How do these idiots become so well-known? I don't gettit.
By inventing type theory to deal explicitly with such self-referential contradictions?

Do you think that he can prove that "Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know"? If so, please talk us through it.
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#5  Postby jamest » Feb 04, 2011 11:44 am

Actually, don't waste your time. The fact is that 'type theory' and claims that "Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know", are categories of knowledge not given unto telescopes. That is, his claim is self-discrediting.
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#6  Postby VazScep » Feb 04, 2011 11:49 am

jamest wrote:Actually, don't waste your time.
I won't. You've made it abundantly clear that you have no interest in learning anything.
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#7  Postby jamest » Feb 04, 2011 11:54 am

VazScep wrote:
jamest wrote:Actually, don't waste your time.
I won't. You've made it abundantly clear that you have no interest in learning anything.

His claims/theories are categories of knowledge not given unto telescopes. His claim is evidently self-discrediting. Why can't you learn that?
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#8  Postby Little Idiot » Feb 04, 2011 6:22 pm

jamest wrote:Actually, don't waste your time. The fact is that 'type theory' and claims that "Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know", are categories of knowledge not given unto telescopes. That is, his claim is self-discrediting.


Seems fairly obvious to me what Jamest says here;

The two statements "Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods" and "what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know" can not be attained by scientific knowledge.
Therefore according to the statements, if the statements are correct, they can not be known because they can not be attained by scientific knowledge. The position is either wrong or self refuting.
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#9  Postby VazScep » Feb 04, 2011 6:45 pm

Little Idiot wrote:Seems fairly obvious to me what Jamest says here;
No doubt. It is obvious. But to suggest that Russell didn't have a solution to it, given that he had spotted a similar self-refutation in Frege's formal logic known as "Russell's Paradox", should be a good indication that he wouldn't have so easily walked into the same idiotic blunder. The same applies to logical positivists in general. These guys knew logic well. jamest doesn't.

Russell's solution to vicious circularities was a ramified type theory, which has now been accepted as a standard way to handle the vicious circularities that seem to be endemic in higher-order logic. You put the same theory to bear on the statement "Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods", and you are forced to conclude that the statement is in a different class to the statements it mentions and so doesn't apply to itself. The point can be further explored via Tarski's Theorem and the idea of "metalevel" statements, as well as other considerations from logic that have been teased out mathematically.

I'm not saying these solutions are perfect or even any good. What I am saying is that

jamest wrote:Therefore, the guy is talking bollocks. Simple. How do these idiots become so well-known? I don't gettit.
is best explained by jamest's ignorance, rather than by suggesting Russell was an idiot.
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#10  Postby jamest » Feb 05, 2011 1:58 am

VazScep wrote:Russell's solution to vicious circularities was a ramified type theory, which has now been accepted as a standard way to handle the vicious circularities that seem to be endemic in higher-order logic. You put the same theory to bear on the statement "Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods", and you are forced to conclude that the statement is in a different class to the statements it mentions and so doesn't apply to itself. The point can be further explored via Tarski's Theorem and the idea of "metalevel" statements, as well as other considerations from logic that have been teased out mathematically.

I'm not saying these solutions are perfect or even any good. What I am saying is that

jamest wrote:Therefore, the guy is talking bollocks. Simple. How do these idiots become so well-known? I don't gettit.
is best explained by jamest's ignorance, rather than by suggesting Russell was an idiot.

My ignorance of solutions [put forward by a specific individual] that are not necessarily "perfect or even any good", hardly disqualifies me from noting that such solutions must be bollox in themselves. This isn't the history forum. What some 'bigwig' has said is hardly significant just because a small minority of individuals insert a pedestal beneath his feet.
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#11  Postby Chrisw » Feb 05, 2011 3:11 pm

jamest wrote:Do you think that he can prove that "Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know"? If so, please talk us through it.

I'd say that 'science' broadly speaking, is the pursuit of knowledge. And 'scientific methods' are whatever seems to work effectively in this pursuit (maybe Russell is arguing in the opposite direction and defines science as an activity
that conforms to a particular methodology?)

If it were somehow possible to discover absolute rules of ethics then they could form the basis of a science of ethics. Russell's point is that we can't have a science of ethics (or aesthetics) because the subject matter "cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie[s] outside the realm of truth and falsehood." Perhaps he is echoing his colleage G. E. Moore here and regards ethics as a rather mysterious thing that we can say little about (I'm pretty sure he isn't being a relativist).

I don't think it's a denigration of ethics or aesthetics to say that they are not concerned with knowledge. Scientism is not simply the belief that science is the only path to knowledge (which in any case needn't involve a prescriptive claim about what science is). Scientism also involves the elevation of knowledge-seeking above all other human activity; the belief that all other human activity is intellectually worthless or meaningless. This is not necessary or desirable in my opinion.

To talk about 'truth' in art is only metaphorical. Art shouldn't give answers (art that tries to is trite), it should be above that. But no one thinks that all judgements about art are impossible, that we can't value some things more than others and that we can't have intelligent discussions about such things. It's the same for ethics. A "ten commandments" type list would be dumb. And Peter Singer is dumb. But there are non-dumbed down conversations we can have about ethics and they aren't a waste of time even though their purpose is not to discover truths about the world.
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#12  Postby Spinozasgalt » Feb 06, 2011 12:50 am

Russell's comment just reads to me like a non-cognitivist. Pay particular attention to "they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood". He would differ with Moore if that were his view, because Moore was a cognitivist (thought ethical statements could be true or false), but the way in which Moore's view seemed mysterious was probably about his non-naturalism.

It's not really a refutation of realism in general, but I do think it's something Harris needs to deal with. That his view hasn't even attempted to deal with Moore yet, whose work is considered the starting point for foundational issues in the contemporary field just says that Harris's view is dramatically under-developed for the purpose of convincing anyone who has seen this before.

I don't know if Harris has even heard of non-cognitivism.
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#13  Postby metacristi » Feb 20, 2011 10:55 pm

Hugin wrote:From Science and Ethics:

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.


It's somewhat distressing that Harris keeps insisting that science can decide what we ought to value. The distinction between facts and values is well-known. That's why there are ethical committees trying to decide how to use new scientific findings on controversial issues - it simply can't be decided by science.

In economics you differentiate between positive economics and normative economics, where the first attempts to express statements of facts ("If you do policy X, thing Y will happen."), and the other expresses value judgements ("In a good society, policy X is adopted."). According to Harris, this distinction doesn't exist, yet it's obvious that it does!



He can be accused of scientism no doubt. Although I am sympathetic with his 'crusade' against moral relativism and 'morality needs religion' views it is still better to leave morality to Philosophy :). But I think that we can at least talk of science influencing ethics and the existence of a standard of Rationality (although openly accepted as corrigible) which points out towards a form of realism in morality (and moral progress of course).

To Lie Or Not To Lie? - an amusing interactive game showing how relative morality is :) Allegedly I am close to Aristotle by the way
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Re: Bertrand Russell's refutation of Sam Harris' moral theor

#14  Postby Thommo » Feb 21, 2011 12:55 am

metacristi wrote:To Lie Or Not To Lie? - an amusing interactive game showing how relative morality is :) Allegedly I am close to Aristotle by the way


Superb production values, insanely poor representation of moral thinking.

Sam Harris would be proud.
jamest wrote:Taken as a whole, I've talked quite a lot of bollocks.
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