Monthly Archives: February 2011

Reflections on our “Soul” talk

From our religious, literary or poetic sources we get a picture of human reality that places the soul as an essential part of being human . This is also the view of our various religious cultures in the West: all persons have a soul.

This traditional belief holds that there is more to human existence than the functioning of a biological organism, that a person alive is more than a body alive. This something “more” is expressed in terms of a soul, or spirit, “alma,” “ánima,” “psyche” or life force. In line with this, many religious traditions assume that the ultimate nature of human existence is spiritual rather than corporeal, thus implying that our soul, not our body, comprises our essential being. This was also the teaching of the ancient Greeks, Socrates and Plato.

Early in people’s attempts to understand human reality, this view might have simply been a way of answering the question ‘What moves the body?’ Here the assumption was that a body could not move itself. (Thus people posited “the ghost in the machine,” as the 20th century British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, expressed it.)

After this, we can speculate that the human tendency to place high value on human existence reinforced the assumption of a soul, that “higher” aspect of human existence.

Being humans we assign very high value to human existence, which leads some to the belief that only the soul (or something like the soul) can express this high value. (This is analogous to a similar view of theism. People cannot understand how our existence can have any meaning unless we assume that there is a God who gives it meaning.)

The result is that many people in our traditional culture find it very difficult to imagine human existence without a soul, just as many of the same people find it most difficult to imagine our world devoid of a deity. Accordingly, then, many people reject the scientific view that humans are essentially physical, biological beings —naturally evolved animals. Traditionally we tend to presuppose that humans are essentially spiritual beings, created in the image of God. In some cases this is a religious, metaphysical assumption; in other cases, it is simply a way of expressing the high value we ascribe to human existence.

It is not surprising, then, that those who promote religions have a receptive audience when they claim that possession of an eternal soul and our status as God’s special creatures show that we are categorically distinct from the natural animal order. In this context, it is easy to see why many of the fundamentalist religions feel so threatened by atheism, evolutionary naturalism and philosophical materialism.

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As a rational skeptic I tend to dismiss all this ‘soul’ and ‘god’ talk as cultural myth and religious fantasy. But maybe we should not hastily dismiss all this as childish fantasy; for what we see here could be a deep-seated tendency of the human psyche, a primitive need for a meaningful ‘picture’ of reality, the positing of value and the need for reassurance.

The concepts of ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ are similar in some ways, but also markedly different. People usually use the term ‘soul’ in a religious, poetic fashion, and assume that the soul is immortal. Normally we do not think of our mind as immortal, unless mind is identified with the soul. Both terms are vague or ambiguous. We know in a general, loose sense what people mean by them, but would have difficulty giving good definitions of either.

It may be that “soul” and “god” are just ways that we tend to talk, reflecting ways we think about human existence and the world. Neither term is a scientific term. Meanings that people attach to them vary so much that any careful discourse in which they are used should be preceded by a stipulated, working definition of the terms.

Suppose that someone claims that as a matter of fact people do possess souls. What evidence could he give to support his claim? On the other hand, generally we accept the claim that people have minds, although there are no grounds for claiming that the mind can exist independently of the brain functions.

“Soul” lingo is the talk of those who cannot accept the idea that human beings are (merely) biological entities, the result of natural evolutionary processes. Like all life, human life is based on physical and chemical processes. However, many people cannot give up the idea that humans are more than biological, physical entities, and cling to the idea that humans have an essential spiritual or non-material aspect. (This is different from but analogous to the Cartesian dualism which assumes a ‘mental’ nature distinct from our corporeal nature.)

“Soul” can also be seen as a term belonging to a family of terms, e.g., spirit, mind, free-will-as-a-faculty, and such. These terms express a dualistic view of human existence. Accordingly, humans are seen as having dual natures, corporeal and spiritual. This is compatible with the religious idea that humans are connected to the higher, spiritual realm associated with God and eternal life.

Those looking on from the orientation of the natural sciences and critical philosophy will find (in soul talk) very little that is grounded in fact or anything that is terribly, rationally compelling. But maybe that is not the point of “soul” talk.

Charles Rulon: Anti-abortion laws stomp on women’s right to personal body integrity and liberty

Personal body integrity

In Anglo-American law there is no routine legal duty for an innocent bystander to rescue another, not even a relative. So, although it might be virtuous for me to wade into a river to save a drowning child, I’m not legally forced to do so (unless it comes with my occupation, of course). I also have the right to protect myself from being kidnapped or from being physically harmed against my will, even with deadly force if necessary. And despite the pain and suffering of those in dire need of a kidney or bone marrow transplant, or even a blood trans­fusion, I am legally protected from being forced to donate — from having my body invaded against my will, even if it means someone else will die. And, of course, if an embryo were to be implanted in a woman’s uterus without her consent, the law would come to her defense, the embryo would be removed and those responsible arrested…. unless, of course, the embryo came about because she had sex.

The major exception to our right to personal body integrity

Before Roe v. Wade (1973) there was one major exception where a major biological invasion with potentially dangerous conse­quences was being legally required of an American citizen without her consent.[1] These were the millions of women with unwanted pregnancies who were being forced to carry to term—to have their bodies used against their will to keep embryos and fetuses alive.[2] In 1973 Roe v. Wade changed all that. One half of our entire population now became legally and safely protected from being forced to be unwilling embryo incubators. Yet for decades major conservative religious and political forces have been attempting to deny women with unwanted pregnancies their right to personal body integrity and freedom. Today, women’s bodies are in real danger of being involuntarily conscripted by the state to preserve the life of tiny mindless senseless embryos and fetuses.

Active killing vs. passive killing

Anti-choice activists reject this body integrity argument by claiming that there is a fundamental difference between the pregnant woman actively having her fetus killed and a citizen passively doing nothing by not donating blood. But the woman is not actively trying to kill her fetus; she is actively trying to not have her body used against her will as an embryo incubator, just as I might actively resist having my body used against my will as a kidney or blood bank.

Consent to have sex is NOT consent to become pregnant[3]

Abortion opponents also reject the body integrity argument by claiming that women with unwanted pregnancies are NOT innocent bystanders. They claim that by choosing to have sex, knowing that pregnancy is possible, women have already implic­it­ly con­sented to be pregnant, so the “hands off my body” arguments and laws no longer apply. This “consent to have sex = implicit consent to be pregnant” argument is the major reason why most anti-choice supporters make an exception for rape and incest victims, even though the result is still the death of “innocent” embryos and fetuses. (For the extremely powerful Roman Catholic Church—the primary driving force behind the anti-choice movement—the “con­sent to have sex” argument is irrelevant anyway, since the Church opposes all artificial contraceptives, emergency contraception, and abortions, even for rape.)

Of course, being raped obviously isn’t the only way women can have unwanted pregnancies. Contra­cep­tives can fail. Ignorance, poverty, guilt, coercion, alcohol, drugs, and aggressive macho males all play their part. Humans evolved to be extremely sexual primates, but they are also quite fallible and often make mistakes. Now stir in all the major religious, patriarchal, financial, educational and social obstacles to birth control and what do we get? A planet literally swamped with over 80 million unplanned pregnancies a year.

Since Roe v. Wade, over 50 million Americans have elected to abort. Yet for most anti-choice supporters, only rape and incest (and life-threatening situations) justify the right for a woman to abort.[4] I see this “consent to sex = implicit consent to be pregnant” argument as mean-spirited and irrational. It is as destructive to female equality as claiming that those women who wear “suggestive” clothes have implicitly consented to be raped and thus have no recourse.[5]

Body integrity vs. embryo rights

If embryos are ever legally granted the right to life, will abortions legally then be murder? Quite possibly YES, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade did not rely on the personal body integrity argument. Had they done so, then it should make no dif­ference if the embryo is legally defined as a person. Why? Because it doesn’t change the fact that an un­wanted and potentially very harmful invasion of a woman’s body has taken place. After all, the guy who needs the kidney transplant or blood transfusion is obviously a person. Trying to “glamorize” and “personalize” embryos—to grant them the right to life—has distracted us for decades from what should have been the real question: Do we really want to live in a country that protects the right to personal body integrity of all American citizens, except pregnant women—a country where it’s legal to try to force women to use their bodies against their will to incubate unwanted embryos—to outlaw a woman’s basic right to have herself freed from this potentially dangerous and unwanted bodily invasion?

Closing thoughts

Measures that force women to stay pregnant against their will demean, endanger, and essentially enslave women. Every year on our planet some 20 million women are desperate enough to seek out danger­ous illegal abortions. Millions end up in hospitals hemorrhaging and badly in­fected. Tens of thousands die. The seriously injured and dead often leave behind young, unattended children whose chances for survival are bleak. For anti-choice supporters to demand that tiny human embryos all have some kind of inalienable right to life that must be protected with strongly enforced laws is, for me personally, so patently absurd and dangerous as to defy any cogent response.[6]

Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences; Long Beach City College
([email protected])

[1]One out of four pregnant women needs serious medical atten­tion. Pregnant women exper­ience 7-9 months of sym­p­toms of varying sev­erity, often includ­ing nausea, vomiting, bloating, insom­nia, varicose veins, hemorr­hoids, back pain and indigestion. Their uteruses increase to over 500 times regular size. Finally, their preg­nan­cies cul­mi­nate in physiologi­cal crises that are al­most always excru­ci­atingly pain­ful and occasionally fatal.

[2] J. Mohr, Abortion in America (1978). Our earliest laws (1800s) that outlawed abortion did so, not because embryos were seen as persons with a right to life, but because abortions were extremely dangerous and deadly. Also, Protestant clergy were motivated more by the declining birthrates of adherents than by any concern for the embryo. The clergy were also opposed to abortions because women were seeking out abortions to try to escape the shame and punishment for the sexual sins of extramarital sex and non-procreative sex.

[3] The Supreme Court in its earlier decisions regarding the legalization of contra­ceptives (Griswold v. Connecticut – 1965, 1972) has already protect­ed the right to have sex without having a child. Also, in an earlier decision (Skinner v. Oklahoma -1942) the Court recognized the gross disempowerment that would occur if the choice of whether to have a child were transferred from the individual to the state.

[4]About 90% of women in the U.S. seeking an abortion say they were using contraception at the time. Yet, current contraceptive methods have up to a 30% failure rate. Also, the abortion rate among women living below the poverty line in the U.S. is almost four times higher than among more affluent women. For Hispanic women it’s three times higher than for white women. For black women, it’s five times higher.

[5] By the same logic, smokers have implic­it­ly con­sent­­ed to possible lung cancer and so should be denied publicly funded medical care if a tumor appears; tourists going to developing countries have implicitly consented to being infected with a tropical disease and so should be denied publicly funded treatment; people in automobiles have implicitly consented to an accident, so …well you get the idea.

[6] There is absolutely no scientific evidence for (and much evidence against) the religious beliefs that human embryos have immortal souls and/or were planned ahead of time by some god, and/or have a sacred right to life. In addition, after decades of debates and arguments, there is still little agree­ment among medi­cal, reli­gious, political and theological experts as to when personhood appears (if at all) dur­ing fetal development. To claim that the right-to-life appears at conception is a narrow religious position, certainly not a scientific one.

‘Free Will’ and Common Misconceptions of Some Scientists

Some scientists conclude that the sciences of the human nervous system and psychology have nullified the old, traditional belief that humans can act freely; i.e., that ‘free will’ is a myth that must be discarded by any scientifically informed person. This is a philosophical inference from the work of science, and like many such inferences from the data of sciences it should be subject to critical scrutiny. A good example of the nullification view (of free will) is given by James Miles (a British evolutionary theorist) in an article that appeared in Reports, the magazine for the National Center for Scientific Education (vol. 25, no. 3-4, 2005).

Miles writes:

“The subject of free will “is another area where selfish-gene theorists refuse to challenge evolutionary psychologists, maybe because at least one influential selfish-gene theorist wants to believe in this particular self-serving delusion. In Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, (Daniel) Dennett tells us that the implications of rejecting the idea of free will are, for him, “almost too grim to contemplate”. . . . Not to be rude, but in what sense is Dennett’s special pleading for free will in any material sense different from the creationists’ apologias for a 6000–year-old Earth?”

Miles continues:

“Why is free will so germane to this investigation into EP [Evolutionary Psychology]? Because it cuts to the chase. It asks just how far we are willing to go for science. Darwin called free will a “delusion”. George Williams, founding father of modern evolutionary biology, described free will to me as “a stupid idea” (see Miles 2004: 155). Darwin, who tried to place humans in nature, had no time for free will. Evolutionary psychology, which seems to try in all ways to separate humans from nature, crows about our free will. Evolutionary theorizing does not need EP [Evolutionary Psychology] and its blind faith in free will, nor does it need Dennett’s bland rationalization that free will is “worth wanting.”

The statements by Miles and Williams are good examples of the practice of drawing philosophical inferences from the work of the sciences and then advancing these ‘philosophical statements’ as if they trumped all other philosophical views on the subject at issue, in this case, free will. Many philosophers and writers have argued that the work of the relevant sciences (genetics, neurology, psychology, etc.) do not show that all our actions are determined or constrained in ways that deny freedom. I could spend time summarizing these arguments, but presently I will say a few things in defense of Daniel Dennett’s arguments in defense of freedom, which Miles apparently completely misunderstood.

Daniel Dennett’s work in Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting would be not much worth reading if all he did was “special pleading for free will,” as Miles puts it. Miles would have us conclude that Dennett is talking about a traditionally defined “free will” which science clearly rejects but which he (Dennett) cannot give up. Anyone who reads Dennett’s Elbow Room knows that this is not so. First, in this book Dennett is primarily interested in dealing with a number of misguided fears and misconceptions that arise in connnection with the issue of free will and determinism, arguing that even when one accepts a form of ‘determinism’ and accepts the sciences’ rejection of ‘metaphysical freedom’ (aka ‘free will’), one is not beset with alleged consequences that people are somehow lacking freedom in their action.

Apparently the ‘free will’ which scientists reject as an illusion and as a stupid idea is the traditional notion of free will as a form of metaphysical freedom which posits forms of human conduct not conditioned by our biological and psychological nature. Sometimes this traditional concept includes the notion of free will as a special mental faculty which allegedly allows for free, creative acts, not analyzable in physiological terms.

However, when Dennett talks about ‘free will’ he is not talking about free will in this sense at all. He is not trying to rescue that ‘free will’ which Darwin called an illusion and Williams called a “stupid idea.” What Dennett does (along with a number of other critical philosophers) is to distinguish between that outmoded sense of ‘free will’ (a mysterious faculty, metaphysical freedom) and a concept of freedom of action consistent with scientific findings about our biological and physiological nature. This is what he refers to when he mentions a “free will that is worth wanting.” This is the notion of freedom which we have in mind in our ordinary talk that distinguishes between those things we do because we desire to do them or because we think they’re in our best interest and those things on which our hand is forced; or the ‘freedom’ that people lacking it (e.g. slaves, victims of an oppressive, totalitarian state) are talking about when they struggle to gain their freedom. Nothing that evolutionary biology, neurology, and psychology have done nullifies such freedom. The alleged ‘nullification’ only arises when certain scientists, philosophers, and writers fall into the trap of advancing an undeveloped, uninformed philosophy —- one which a little effort in critical thought easily exposes.

In his later book on the free will issue: Freedom Evolves, Dennett argues that free action is consistent with an evolutionary account of human nature and human behavior.

(Note to Miles and Williams: Please give Dennett some credit for having a modicum of scientific ‘savvy’ and not holding onto “stupid ideas.”)

In brief, my reply to Miles, Williams or anyone who ridicules any attempt to show that free action is compatible with (scientific) determinism is to ask how exactly they propose to define “free will.” As a philosophical issue which has run for a good one hundred years or more, “free will” has been defined in different ways. Philosophers and writers who deal with the free will-determinism issue often spend much time trying to clarify exactly what they mean by the human freedom. Surely, my (and your) ability to choose between alternative actions and act on the basis of that choice does not imply that somehow our decisions and actions cannot be scientifically analyzed as evolutionary scientists would analyze them. Nor does it imply that we possess some form mysterious faculty of free will.

Notes on difficult subjects: Confusing our concepts, experiences, and reality

It is true that we must presuppose the spatial-temporal dimensions to make sense of our experience of the physical world. But this does not logically imply that the spatial-temporal dimensions are not objective features of the physical world. The objectivity of space and time is consistent with the notion that our analysis of experience discloses that experience of the world cannot happen devoid of spatial-temporal ordering. That our experience is ordered temporally and spatially by our cognitive faculty is consistent with the proposition that time and space are properties of the objective order of reality.

Our epistemological models do not have to posit the subjective starting point, i.e., a conscious subject (an “homunculous”) inside the head, isolated from physical and social reality. The subjective starting point is common to Descartes, Locke, Hume, and in part to Kant, and sets up the epistemological problem the task of showing how the subject can achieve knowledge of the objective world.

Ultimately, the notion of an isolated, conscious subject who can reflect on his own ideas and impressions and speculate about to their external causes (viz., use language and concepts) is an incoherent notion. But this incoherent notion is required for the epistemological model presupposed by Cartesians, Locke, Hume, and Kant.

The epistemological model of realism starts with a conscious, perceiving, acting organism (e.g. a human being) existing in a natural and social environment, experiencing that object world, causally interacting with it and with other organisms who co-exist in those worlds. This more desirable model is one found in the work of Thomas Reid and can be seen as presupposed by a Darwinian evolutionary biology, and the scientific pragmatism of John Dewey.

Intuitively it strikes me as correct to say that the world of phenomena (objects, processes, forces, etc.) is a spatio-temporal world, i.e., one existing in space and time.

According to Kant our cognitive faculties (of the experiencing subject) provide the spatio-temporal template by which our phenomenal world (the world experienced) is ordered. Any phenomenal object (the tree and its lemons that occupy my backyard) must be described in terms of the intuition of space and time and the categories of the understanding. These intuitions and categories are imposed on experience by the subject’s cognitive faculties. But world behind the phenomena, the world separate and independent of the ordering activity of the cognitive mind, is one outside our knowledge and comprehension. This is Kant’s world-in-itself, or noumena. Presumably the real tree-in-itself and lemons-in-themselves are neither knowable nor conceivable by me. I cannot even claim that they’re found in my backyard!

Something has gone terribly awry when we assert that any answer to the question ‘What is the real object?’ must be given in terms of the obscure notion of thing-in-itself, i.e., in terms of some object which we cannot know, experience, or even conceive.

There’s nothing whatsoever that we can say about this putative world-in-itself. We cannot legitimately say that it is the real world, or that it is the partial cause of our phenomenal world.
At best, the notion of thing-in-itself or noumena is a limiting concept (See Strawson’s book, The Bounds of Sense).

To hold that noumena is the world as it really is, rather than world as it appears to human cognition, is erroneously to take a limiting concept as have metaphysical, ontological import.

Insofar as our coherent language and thought allows, the so-called “phenomenal world” is the real world, i.e., the world in which we exist, the one we experience and one accessible to human understanding. Of course, our concept of this reality can be refined through analysis, mathematical modeling, scientific theorizing and investigation. The resulting picture or model, a refined one when compared to our untrained intuitions, will be a picture or model of the world of experience. It does not point to a “world-in-itself.”

The real world is one that humans and other creatures inhabit, experience, and one with which they continually interact. Existence and experience can be characterized as transactions between the subject and the world. When humans think about or conceptualize physical aspects of this world they do so in terms of spatial extensions and a temporal dimension; and apply basic categories like object-hood, substance, cause-effect, force, and such. Conceptualization of the world presupposes application of these basic categories and intuitions. It is because the real world has the properties it has, i.e., a spatial, temporal, physical nature, that this application is an apt one.

(Yes, I know that modern physical theory — relativity physics, quantum physics, and the latest theories of particle physics — raise many questions about the ‘objective’ nature of the real world. But I’m not prepared to accept the paradoxes of particle physics as determining what we can and cannot say about the world we inhabit.)

Our “Kantian problem” is rooted in the tendency to confuse conceptual analysis with psychology, i.e. to confuse the analysis of basic elements in our concept of experience with the scientific work of describing our cognitive faculties. Both David Hume and Immanuel Kant fall into this confusion.

With Kant it is his tendency to proceed as if he were exposing the structure of our cognitive faculties, rather than exposing the basic ideas in our concept of experience. This leads (or misleads) him to claim that the world of experience is a world of appearances only (a phenomenal world), not reality independent of the ordering activity of our cognitive faculties.
According to Robert P. Wolff, Kant offers a “theory of mental activity.” See his book, Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity.

Does Kant carry out an exploration of the conditions of experience? Alternatively, does he carry out a conceptual inquiry regarding our concepts of objective experience?

To think of an object (e.g. a tree) we must presuppose that the object is a spatial-temporal object. We cannot think of the object except as existing in time and space, having spatial extension and duration. This is a claim about our conceptual scheme. It is not a description of our cognitive faculties. It is not the work of psychology.

We should keep these two areas of work separate from one another:
• Logic-Epistemology-Conceptual Analysis
• Empirical Psychology – theory of mental activity – description of experience.

See Richard Rorty’s The Mirror of Nature for a sustained critique of the epistemological project from Descartes through Locke and Hume and culminating in Kant’s First Critique.
Too many philosophers confuse their talk and thinking about the world with the world itself. Too many confuse talk about experience (e.g. perception) with a psychological account of the mental processes underlying experience.
What would a metaphysician basing himself on Kantian philosophy say? Maybe he would assert that the California Redwood forests of the northern California coast only represent phenomena conditioned by the subject who experiences them. (?) In truth, the rugged coast and the California Redwoods are a reality independent and prior to any human experience of them.
[If certain tribes of philosophers refer to this position as naïve realism, so be it.]

Yesterday Virginia called me out to the backyard to pick lemons from our tree. What would a metaphysically inclined Kantian say? Would he assert that those lemons were not real lemons, since the lemons that I experienced (picked) were partly conditioned by my cognitive faculties? Would he declare that the real lemons, viz. the lemons-in-themselves, were unknowable and outside any possibility of my experience (I could not possibly pick them)?

A Kantian view: The world that we experience is mere phenomena (appearance only?). The real world — the noumena is forever hidden from us. Reality lies behind the stage of phenomenal objects, processes, and actions. [Does this make any sense?]

When we argue that the perception of X presupposes fundamental concepts of X, our argument takes place in the area of conceptual analysis; we are not doing a psychological study of the mental processes underlying perception.

When we attempt to sort and clarify perceptual concepts, and attempt to say how people can coherently speak about (and think about) perceptual experience, we do not attempt to conduct scientific (psychological) investigation into the mental processes underlying perception.

(Caveat: Yet these two lines of inquiry, conceptual and scientific, may relate to each other. The scientific results of a psychological-neurological study of perception may significantly influence our conceptual efforts. Conversely, philosophical analysis of relevant concepts may influence how scientists approach their investigation of the mental processes related to perception, although scientist are not restricted by our ordinary ways of thinking and talking about perception. {* see note below.})

(2nd Caveat: Philosophers engaged in epistemological work have a great difficulty keeping these two forms of inquiry separated.)

* The cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker (psycho-linguist), makes use of Kantian ideas in his study of human nature via our fundamental ideas and language. See his work The Stuff of Thought.

Scientific study of mental activity, e.g. psychology, neurology, is distinct from the work of conceptual analysis (e.g. epistemological philosophy) in which one attempts to sort and clarify such concepts as knowledge, belief, perception, truth, memory, doubt and such.

Michael Shermer’s and Sam Harris’s Muddled Views on Moral Philosophy

In a recent short article titled, “Can Data Determine Moral Values?” (January 2011 issue of Scientific American) Michael Shermer briefly discusses the issue of whether science can resolve questions of morality. He starts by pointing to the insistence by many philosophers dealing with ethics that fact and value are separate matters; this is often stated in terms of the “naturalistic fallacy.” Shermer writes:

“Ever since the rise of modern science, an almost impregnable wall separating it from religion, morality and human values have been raised to the heights. The “naturalistic fallacy,” sometimes rendered as the “is-ought problem”—the way something “is” does not mean that is the way it “ought” to be—has for centuries been piously parroted from its leading proponents, philosophers David Hume and G. E. Moore, as if pronouncing it closes the door to further scientific inquiry.”

Shermer then asserts that

“we should be skeptical of this divide. If morals and values should not be based on the way things are—reality—then on what should they be based? All moral values must ultimately be grounded in human nature,..”

This facile dismissal of the naturalistic fallacy is typical of writers who have a partial understanding of the problems with which ethical philosophers have long grappled. Of course, any viable ethical philosophy should take into account the way things are and the relevant aspects of human nature. But it is one thing to say this and another altogether to state that moral values are “ultimately grounded in human nature.” The latter statement is either trivial or false. It is trivial in the sense that moral values arise from moral behavior which certainly can be the subject of scientific research. But it is false in the sense that an adequate, scientific account of human nature would give us a clear map for stating what values people should uphold. Human nature results in a variety of moral behaviors and a variety of moral values. The answer to the question of the basis for moral values is that humans have based and continue to base values on a variety of things: religion, experience, reason, economics, political ideology, desires, fears, etc. Some moral values will ultimately be grounded in some aspect of human nature; but some will be grounded on something altogether distinct, such as religious or political ideology. Shermer displays his ignorance by telling us that those who make reference to the naturalistic fallacy are merely “piously parroting” it as a form of dogma. The naturalistic fallacy —- the fallacy of confusing the way things are with the way they should be — points to a genuine problem in ethical philosophy, regardless of the somewhat naïve, facile dismissal by the likes of Shermer.

Shermer then touts the recent work of Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) as knocking down the divide between ‘is’ and ‘ought’:

“Harris’s is a first-principle argument, backed by copious empirical evidence woven through a tightly reasoned narrative. The first principle is the well-being of conscious creatures, from which we can build a science-based system of moral values by quantifying whether or not X increases or decreases well-being…”

This is risible. Shermer writes as if Harris has discovered something new and revolutionary, when in fact this “first principle” by Harris is merely another version of ethical utilitarianism, which has been around at least since the eighteenth century when the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham first developed this type of ethical philosophy. What Harris offers and impresses Shermer is nothing new. There is much to be said in favor of a system of utilitarian ethics; but this philosophy, like other similar ethical philosophies, does not resolve the issue of confusing a matter of fact (people desire pleasure) with an affirmation of value (pleasure is a moral good).

Further down his short article, Michael Shermer brings up the issue of the morality of taxes:

“Harris’s program of a science-based morality is a courageous one that I wholeheartedly endorse, but how do we resolve conflicts over such hotly contested issues as taxes?”

Supposedly, the question concerns the dispute between those who argue that taxes are a good thing and those (Libertarians?) who argue the opposite. Shermer seems to favor the side of those who oppose taxes, as we read in this remark:

“…what happens when the majority of residents … pass laws that force those in the minority …. to help pay for their programs of social wellbeing for everyone? More scientific data are unlikely to eliminate the conflict.”

Shermer quotes Harris as replying along these lines:

“To say that ‘more scientific data are unlikely to eliminate the conflict’ is simply to say that nothing will: because the only alternative is to argue without recourse to facts. I agree that we find ourselves in this situation from time to time, often on economic questions, but this says nothing about whether right answers to such questions exist.”

This shows Harris at his best, making invalid inferences. It does not follow that, because we note that more scientific data are not likely to resolve an issue, nothing will; nor does it follow that “the only alternative is to argue without recourse to facts.” Nothing prevents us from working out some resolution to an issue by reasoned argument or by diplomacy, and in the process make reference to relevant facts. Apparently Shermer does not detect this piece of muddled thinking by Mr. Harris. Instead Shermer hastens to state his agreement with Harris:

“Just because we cannot yet think of how science might resolve this or that moral conflict does not mean that the problem is an insoluble one. Science is the art of the soluble, and we should apply it where we can.”

Shermer is stroking a non-existent problem here. Philosophers who argue more scientific data cannot resolve many difficult moral issues are not claiming that such problems are insoluble. Of course, we should apply the relevant science to resolving problems where the science applies. This is pretty much a truism.

But the tough moral questions and moral dilemmas, those which involve choices and value judgments, cannot be resolved by any science, since in many cases the issue is not a factual issue, but one of values. Centuries ago David Hume pointed out the categorical difference between fact (‘is’ questions) and value (‘ought’ questions). Nothing that science and subsequent ethical philosophies have done since then have eliminated this difference.

And nothing that the sciences have done nor that modern ethical philosophies have done subsequent to Hume have shown how knowledge of the facts could resolve a large class of moral dilemmas such as those involving the morality of war, or differing notions of justice, or those conflicts arising from economic and class distinctions, and, more significantly, those cases in which there are limited benefits to be distributed among almost unlimited numbers of people needing those benefits: e.g. Who gets the organ transplant? Who gets the life-saving medical procedure when medical resources are limited? Who gets rescued first when twenty need rescue and the boat holds only five? Who, among equally qualified candidates, gets the desirable position? Add to this that often we must make moral choices without knowing whether we are really making the right choice (scientific knowledge will not help); as Sidney Hook wrote decades ago,

“every genuine experience of moral doubt and perplexity in which we ask, “What should I do?” takes place in as in a situation where good conflicts with good. If we already know what is evil the moral inquiry is over, or it never really begins.”

In other words, with many of the tough moral situations that people face the applicable knowledge (scientific or otherwise) which would guide people to making the right choice is simply not available. To argue otherwise, as Shermer and Harris do, is to indulge in something akin to wishful thinking or ‘hand waving’ — something more associated with an inferior type of philosophy than with critical thought of a scientific writer.

Science can help in some moral situations; but its applicability is of limited value in the really tough moral situations. It is true that the more we acquire knowledge about ‘human nature’ the more we know and can predict about human behavior and human thinking. And it is true that this will be helpful in dealing with some ethical issues. The more we know the better we can negotiate our way through life. But this rather obvious point should not obscure the actual problems of the moral sphere.

To argue, as Shermer does, that the naturalistic fallacy is merely a pious pronouncement of philosophers ignorant of scientific solutions betrays a fundamental ignorance of the issues and problems with which ethical philosophers have long dealt. And to say, as Shermer and Harris do, that our inability to find a scientific solution to a tough moral problem leaves us without any possibility of resolving the issue seems to me a bit of sophistry. It betrays a fundamental ignorance of moral dilemmas and assumes falsely that the only possible solution to a moral problem is a scientific one.