10 myths -- and 10 truths -- about atheism

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10 myths -- and 10 truths -- about atheism

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10 myths -- and 10 truths -- about atheism
By Sam Harris, SAM HARRIS is the author of "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason" and "Letter to a Christian Nation."
December 24, 2006

SEVERAL POLLS indicate that the term "atheism" has acquired such an extraordinary stigma in the United States that being an atheist is now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being black, Muslim or homosexual is not). According to a recent Newsweek poll, only 37% of Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified atheist for president.

Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed, blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of the supernatural.

Even John Locke, one of the great patriarchs of the Enlightenment, believed that atheism was "not at all to be tolerated" because, he said, "promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist."

That was more than 300 years ago. But in the United States today, little seems to have changed. A remarkable 87% of the population claims "never to doubt" the existence of God; fewer than 10% identify themselves as atheists — and their reputation appears to be deteriorating.

Given that we know that atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society, it seems important to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in our national discourse.

1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless.

On the contrary, religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless.

2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

3) Atheism is dogmatic.

Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so prescient of humanity's needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous. One doesn't have to take anything on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by chance.

No one knows why the universe came into being. In fact, it is not entirely clear that we can coherently speak about the "beginning" or "creation" of the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the concept of time, and here we are talking about the origin of space-time itself.

The notion that atheists believe that everything was created by chance is also regularly thrown up as a criticism of Darwinian evolution. As Richard Dawkins explains in his marvelous book, "The God Delusion," this represents an utter misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Although we don't know precisely how the Earth's early chemistry begat biology, we know that the diversity and complexity we see in the living world is not a product of mere chance. Evolution is a combination of chance mutation and natural selection. Darwin arrived at the phrase "natural selection" by analogy to the "artificial selection" performed by breeders of livestock. In both cases, selection exerts a highly non-random effect on the development of any species.

5) Atheism has no connection to science.

Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God — as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example: Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.

6) Atheists are arrogant.

When scientists don't know something — like why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn't know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn't arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.

7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don't tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences.

There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who can be certain that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that spiritual experience can authenticate.

Cool Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding.

Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way that religious people are not. It is obvious that we do not fully understand the universe; but it is even more obvious that neither the Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it. We do not know whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos, but there might be. If there is, such beings could have developed an understanding of nature's laws that vastly exceeds our own. Atheists can freely entertain such possibilities. They also can admit that if brilliant extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and the Koran will be even less impressive to them than they are to human atheists.

From the atheist point of view, the world's religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn't have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an observation.

9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.

Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as "wishful thinking" and "self-deception." There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth.

In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?

10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.

If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.

We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. - Seneca


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Great post. Hope some of the

Great post. Hope some of the theists here read it.


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I just think Mr. Harris is a

I just think Mr. Harris is a brilliant writer/speaker.  He can get his message across so well in any form.  His two books, articles, debates and lectures are all so well organized and expressed.  I can't get enough of him.


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Randalllord wrote:

Randalllord wrote:
We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.

 

1. What is moral progress?
2. (maybe this will help you answer 1: ) What is the end of moral progress? How does one evaluate moral progress?


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hello wrote: Randalllord

hello wrote:

Randalllord wrote:
We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.

 

1. What is moral progress?
2. (maybe this will help you answer 1: ) What is the end of moral progress? How does one evaluate moral progress?

 

Mr. Harris gave an example of moral progress using slavery in the very material which you quoted. Why must there always be an 'end' to moral progress? As I have read on many creationist websites, theists seem to live under the base assertion that there is no morality without god. Yet countless times we have refuted this by examining what life would be like under shari'a law, the mitzvot, or even the new testament.

Moral progress is measured by simply analyzing the intersubjective reactions to situations that arise. For instance, in our society female circumcision is ludicrous, nay even heinous to even hear about. In islamic countries, the practice is under scrutiny due to the reactions of the western world with regard to the practice. Through education and international influence, the women/girls subjected to this practice are standing up for their human rights.

Moral progress is the easier term for some people to accept. The truth, in my opinion, is that we are studying what we feel is 'right' and educating people concerning a viewpoint that is arrived at through ethical wisdom.   

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1. What is moral 

1. What is moral  progress?

2. What is ethical wisdom? 


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Morals and ethics are

Morals and ethics are merely cultural standards that evolved with the culture relating to them. Often through a religious process, but ultimately for the community at large. Rules were a natural result of larger gatherings of humans in villages. Anyone who says you need religion to have morals and ethics have no idea what morals and ethics really are.

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What is moral

What is moral progress?

That depends on your definition of morality. There are some things that are directly related to evolution, and are common to pretty much all cultures. Unwarranted killing, violations of community/individual property... these can be traced to the evolutionary advantage of working as a community as opposed to living solitary lives. When you start talking about more advanced cultures, the questions inevitably turn to more complex issues that are dependent on the value systems of the community.

There are some things that have been more or less universally agreed upon as "good" in advanced cultures. Equal rights for both genders, freedom from discrimination, freedom from undue censorship of speech or action, etc... Most post-industrial societies agree on these things, at least in principle.

To get any kind of accurate measure, you have to use the scientific method, set up tests, and try to determine if more people actually are living in a better situation than they were at some point in the recent past. For instance, we can objectively see that women have the right to vote, and they did not before the sufferage movement. This is better, based on the criteria that equal gender rights are good, so we have made progress in this area.

Christians often believe that there is a linear progression of morality... either that we are getting consistently less moral, to the point that Jesus has to come back and whoop everybody's ass who didn't believe in him, or that with God's help, we are making constant progress to some sort of "Perfect Morality."

In the real world, this is a fallacy. There are gains in some areas and losses in others. In some ways, we're not much better than the Romans, and in others, we're worlds ahead. In terms of individual freedoms, we've lost many that we had in the early 20th century, but we have made gains in racial equality.

So you see, hello, your question is very vague, and without defining which aspect of morality you're talking about, it's virtually impossible to answer.

What is moral wisdom? I don't know. What do you mean by moral? What do you mean by wisdom? Same problem here, dude.

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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Hambydammit wrote: What is


Hambydammit wrote:

What is moral progress?

That depends on your definition of morality.



What is your definition of morality?

Hambydammit wrote:
What is moral wisdom? I don't know. What do you mean by moral? What do you mean by wisdom? Same problem here, dude.

I did not bring up the term ethical wisdom; Josh uses it to define moral progress:

darth_josh wrote:

Moral progress is the easier term for some people to accept. The truth, in my opinion, is that we are studying what we feel is 'right' and educating people concerning a viewpoint that is arrived at through ethical wisdom.



I don't understand what he means by ethical wisdom.

I don't think my question is vague; it is specific and uses Harris' own terminology. Progress seems to entail the idea of something being better than before. What is moral progress? Where is its beginning, where is it going--what is progressing?

 


 


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Did you read my post?  I

Did you read my post?  I answered your question already.

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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I read your post and then I

I read your post and then I responded...
sorry if i'm misunderstanding.


when you make decisions in your life,  what is your sense of what's good and whats better?

what is your definition of morality?


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how do you use the

how do you use the scientific method to evaluate morality?


and, can you use the scientific method without first assigning some standard or marker to be good?

 

what is the process? 


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Ok.  Now you're asking

Ok.  Now you're asking better questions.

how do you use the scientific method to evaluate morality?

You answer this with your next question!

can you use the scientific method without first assigning some standard or marker to be good?

Nope.  You have to apply some criteria before you can use the scientific method.

The way we decide which criteria to apply has to deal with how we decide what we're talking about.  Morality is a very big word that has a lot of implications, but strictly speaking, it deals with whether an action is right or wrong, or alternatively, good or bad.

Before we can answer the question, "What is moral?" we must ask the question, "Good according to what standard?"  This is largely a cultural question, as I mentioned in a previous post.  In Japan, a man's honor is equated with his morality.  A man who loses his job is a bad person, and suicide in Japan often coincides with not being able to support a family.  In America, we generally consider a man to be a coward if he commits suicide.  If he had stayed around, maybe he'd have gotten another job and been able to support his family again.  In Japan, many would look at the same man as morally good, since suicide is viewed differently.

In America, we look at large families and see moral values.   In China, a large family is a blatant slap in the face to traditional morality.

My point is, different cultures assign different priorities, and so morals are somewhat flexible.  There are constants, but again, these are the results of the evolutionary advantage of working together as opposed to being solitary.

So, do you want to talk about sexual morality?  If you want to be scientific about it, you could ask questions like:

1) Is there empirical evidence that premarital sex is psychologically damaging?

2) Is there evidence that premarital sex is psychologically beneficial?

3) Is there evidence that homosexuality is a natural part of the human species?

4) Is there evidence that controlling the population is a good idea?  If so, what methods of controlling the population make the most sense in light of questions 1) and 2)?

You can go on with this as long as you like, but the point is, each of these questions leads to more questions, and you can answer each with science!  Take this as an example:

For questions 1 and 2, there is a lot of data already out there suggesting that regular sex is beneficial to males and females, and that people who have sex 2-3 times a week are healthier than those who don't.  On the other hand, there are a lot of people who feel guilty about premarital sex.  Once we realize that, we have to ask, "Why do they feel guilty?"  When we do some research, we find that there is a very high correlation between guilty feelings about premarital sex and Christian upbringing.  So, we have to ask ourselves, is there a scientific basis for the Christian ban on premarital sex?  The first thing we'd do to answer that question would be to research the origins of that morality.  I'm not going to spell it all out for you, but do you see how you can start with a simple question and end up with lots more questions?  Each one of these questions has a real answer, but you have to be willing to dismiss your preconceived notions in order to address them scientifically.

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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when you make decisions in

when you make decisions in your life,  what is your sense of what's good and whats better?

Are you asking about me personally?

I've prioritized my life based on a few things that I hold as morally good.

1) I believe that individual freedom to act and speak should only be limited by another person's freedom.  In other words, I believe that people can do pretty much what they want if they don't make other people suffer.  Notice I didn't say other people or themselves.  I'm not particularly opposed to people harming themselves as long as it doesn't harm anyone else.

2) I believe that honesty is the root of good relationships, so I try to be honest first with myself and second with other people.  I recognize that sometimes dishonesty is necessary to accomplish a greater good, but I like to go with the honesty first policy.

3) I believe that all things being equal, fairness is better than unfairness.

4) I believe that other people are usually trying to be good in their own ways, and I look for ways to give others the benefit of the doubt.

5) I believe that the planet is suffering because of too many humans using too many resources, so I believe in living a modest lifestyle without excessive "consumerism."  I also believe that abortion is often a great idea, and contraception is one of the best things man has ever invented.

I could go on, but I think you get the jist of it.

Were you asking a different question, or did I understand you correctly?

If you want to know why I believe these things, it's because they make more logical sense than any other position I could take.

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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Hambydammit wrote: My

Hambydammit wrote:

My point is, different cultures assign different priorities, and so morals are somewhat flexible. There are constants, but again, these are the results of the evolutionary advantage of working together as opposed to being solitary.

So, when right and wrong are not culturally defined, evolution is the standard we can all look to and construct a universal system of ethics?

 

Hambydammit wrote:
So, do you want to talk about sexual morality? If you want to be scientific about it, you could ask questions like:

1) Is there empirical evidence that premarital sex is psychologically damaging?

2) Is there evidence that premarital sex is psychologically beneficial?

3) Is there evidence that homosexuality is a natural part of the human species?

4) Is there evidence that controlling the population is a good idea? If so, what methods of controlling the population make the most sense in light of questions 1) and 2)?

You can go on with this as long as you like, but the point is, each of these questions leads to more questions, and you can answer each with science! Take this as an example:

For questions 1 and 2, there is a lot of data already out there suggesting that regular sex is beneficial to males and females, and that people who have sex 2-3 times a week are healthier than those who don't. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who feel guilty about premarital sex. Once we realize that, we have to ask, "Why do they feel guilty?" When we do some research, we find that there is a very high correlation between guilty feelings about premarital sex and Christian upbringing. So, we have to ask ourselves, is there a scientific basis for the Christian ban on premarital sex? The first thing we'd do to answer that question would be to research the origins of that morality. I'm not going to spell it all out for you, but do you see how you can start with a simple question and end up with lots more questions?

 



So good = optimum health. can you evaluate that good = health scientifically or is that just an assumption that you have to take subjectively (without scientific evidence)?

can you design an experiment testing whether good = health? my feeling is that you can't. you just have to decide that first, and then after you make that assumption you can scientifically say a healthy sexual life -> optimal health -> good ->moral

 


Hambydammit wrote:

Each one of these questions has a real answer, but you have to be willing to dismiss your preconceived notions in order to address them scientifically.

what are my preconceived notions?


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Good questions. So, when

Good questions.

So, when right and wrong are not culturally defined, evolution is the standard we can all look to and construct a universal system of ethics?

First, evolution is the beginning of morality, and morality is ALWAYS culturally defined.

Second, because of the diversity of the human species, there is no such thing as a universal system of ethics. Different cultures will necessarily prioritize things differently.

If you take 50 separate hypothetical cultures, and chart their moral development from the evolutionary beginning, you'll come up with 50 different (sometimes wildly different) "advanced ethical systems." Probably all 50 will have a few similarities (because of the evolutionary beginnings) but maybe one will view racial loyalty as a high ideal, and another will view modesty, and another will think that dying for your family is the best of all moral acts.

Later on, I'll get to the preconceived notion question, but it's worth pointing out that each one of these cultures would look at the others through the filter of their own morality!

So good = optimum health. can you evaluate that good = health scientifically or is that just an assumption that you have to take subjectively (without scientific evidence)?

From a certain point of view, yes, good is equal to optimum health. More precisely, though, health is good. Optimum health may not be optimum good. For example, I really like beer, and enjoy a good drunk from time to time, even though it kills brain cells, and I probably will not live as long as if I never drank. Overall, I'm happier drinking occasionally than not, but otherwise I'm pretty damn healthy.

As long as I accept the notion that "good" as a concept is dependent on a certain perspective, sure, I can evaluate it scientifically.

Since health is demonstrably linked to happiness, and happiness is generally preferable to sadness, there's a direct scientific link, if you come from the perspective that good morality will lead to happiness.

I can also disprove the point! Since the world is overpopulated, health is not generally a good thing, because if people live longer, they'll reproduce more, and we'll have more of a population problem. Therefore, we should promote unhealthy activities so that people will die sooner.

Yeah, it's a little absurd, but it demonstrates the inherent truth that happiness is better than unhappiness, and so is a good basis for a moral judgement.

One of your preconceived notions (which, by the way, is a teaching of Christianity, not of science) is that there is one, and only one set of morality. We're much too complex as a species to have a single, universal code that will apply equally to everyone. (Forgive me if you don't think there's an absolute ethical model, but your questions seem to imply that belief.)

can you design an experiment testing whether good = health? my feeling is that you can't. you just have to decide that first, and then after you make that assumption you can scientifically say a healthy sexual life -> optimal health -> good ->moral

Sure you can, but you have to have a starting point. In the above example, I used personal happiness as a starting point. I know, the next question is "how do you decide on the starting point?"

The problem with this line of questioning is it makes the assumption that any starting point is simply arbitrary, and that's just not so. Happiness is a logical starting point since it is what humans naturally aspire towards. (Ask yourself why you wouldn't use happiness as a starting point, or try using a starting point that doesn't make sense, like "Complacency is the goal of morality.&quotEye-wink There are other logical starting points, too, which is why you can come up with different morals using perfectly logical progressions.

One of the fallacies of moral absolutism is that without a strict, universal code, humanity would fall into chaos. This is a self-defeating premise, since humanity doesn't have a single moral code, and it's never fallen into chaos. The fact is, people are born with an instinctual desire to form communities, and the very simplest logic dictates that the individuals in a community act in ways that promote stability in the community and further the growth of it.

The more advanced nuances of morality are honestly not as important as most people think. Individually, yes, they mean a great deal, but as a species, it's not particularly important whether an individual culture believes in a specific "higher moral."

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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Hambydammit wrote: when

Hambydammit wrote:

when you make decisions in your life, what is your sense of what's good and whats better?

Are you asking about me personally?

I've prioritized my life based on a few things that I hold as morally good.

1) I believe that individual freedom to act and speak should only be limited by another person's freedom. In other words, I believe that people can do pretty much what they want if they don't make other people suffer. Notice I didn't say other people or themselves. I'm not particularly opposed to people harming themselves as long as it doesn't harm anyone else.

2) I believe that honesty is the root of good relationships, so I try to be honest first with myself and second with other people. I recognize that sometimes dishonesty is necessary to accomplish a greater good, but I like to go with the honesty first policy.

3) I believe that all things being equal, fairness is better than unfairness.

4) I believe that other people are usually trying to be good in their own ways, and I look for ways to give others the benefit of the doubt.

5) I believe that the planet is suffering because of too many humans using too many resources, so I believe in living a modest lifestyle without excessive "consumerism." I also believe that abortion is often a great idea, and contraception is one of the best things man has ever invented.

I could go on, but I think you get the jist of it.

Were you asking a different question, or did I understand you correctly?

If you want to know why I believe these things, it's because they make more logical sense than any other position I could take.

 



Yes, I'm asking about you personally. I think asking this question is much more fruitful and interesting than any other question.

Can you explain further why it makes more logical sense than any other  position you could take to believe in the above?


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What my question may amount

What my question may amount to iwith happiness as the starting point of a moral system is: what is your definition of happiness? And, can one rationally establish that definition or any other definition as right (I know we can establish some as wrong)?

...It would be good if we could, right?


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hello wrote: how do you

hello wrote:

how do you use the scientific method to evaluate morality?

Quite simply, you don't. The scientific method is simply a way to understand the world around us. Ethical and moral questions are geared more toward philosophy. This is not to say science cannot help us make ethical judgements, it is simply saying science itself is not concerned with anything other than knowledge - it is ammoral, nuetral in that regard.

 For example, the scientific method won't help us make heads or tails of an abortion debate, but it can help us cut the fat. For example, if one argues that a zygote can feel pain, science can step in and say that simply is not so. Yet this does not solve the ethical dillemma, it simply does away with bogus appeals.


Quote:
and, can you use the scientific method without first assigning some standard or marker to be good?

 Of course. Again, science is ammoral, neutral.

Quote:
what is the process? 

 You're asking the wrong question. We do not determine morallity in a laboratory. We can use science to understand the tools and traits that help us form ethical systems, but science in and of itself cannot dictate or elucidate morality.

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Yellow_Number_Five

Yellow_Number_Five wrote:
hello wrote:

how do you use the scientific method to evaluate morality?

Quite simply, you don't. The scientific method is simply a way to understand the world around us. Ethical and moral questions are geared more toward philosophy. This is not to say science cannot help us make ethical judgements, it is simply saying science itself is not concerned with anything other than knowledge - it is ammoral, nuetral in that regard.

 

I basically agree. Morality has both objective (facts of existence) and inter-subjective elements (evaluations, context, etc.).  So whatever elements are 'objective'  are open to rational-empirical methods, whereas those elements that are inter-subjective are for other fields of study.

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Ok. These guys are saying

Ok. These guys are saying what I was trying to say in a more direct way.

I've been trying to show you that you can test anything you want about morality once you decide what your definition is, but as to the actual nature of morality, there is not a single "universal" morality because there is not a single conscious goal of humanity as a super-organism. (I'm not sure if super-organism is the right term there... I mean a mass of individuals acting as a single organism in some way.)

To go back to what I believe to be your biggest concern, that is, without a god, how do you decide what your basis for morality is...

Humans have, as a matter of evolution, taken care of the big stuff -- how to keep the species going. This is why there's almost universal disgust at the sight of a pregnant woman being beaten within an inch of her life, or why "save the children" commercials are so wide in their appeal.

The little stuff is something that individual societies have to work out for themselves, and their success or failure will be more or less evident in the general happiness/contentedness of the members of the society, and you can measure that in a number of ways if you like.

The ultimate problem I fear you're having is that, as yellow and todangst pointed out, and as I was trying to say, science measures and describes things, and is neutral. Morality is a word describing human interactions, which are at best, extremely complex and difficult to describe with any absolutes.

This is also why Christianity (insert any other dogmatic religion here, and it works, too) is so dangerous... it takes the thought process out of morality and assumes that there is some kind of magic formula and if everybody followed it, everything would be wonderful. If you really think about this idea for a while, you'll see that it's ridiculous.

 

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Hambydammit wrote: To go

Hambydammit wrote:

To go back to what I believe to be your biggest concern, that is, without a god, how do you decide what your basis for morality is...



Your assumption is not correct; my biggest concern(?) is just to have a dialogue about what Harris means when he says moral progress.


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todangst

todangst wrote:
Yellow_Number_Five wrote:
hello wrote:

how do you use the scientific method to evaluate morality?

Quite simply, you don't. The scientific method is simply a way to understand the world around us. Ethical and moral questions are geared more toward philosophy. This is not to say science cannot help us make ethical judgements, it is simply saying science itself is not concerned with anything other than knowledge - it is ammoral, nuetral in that regard.

 

I basically agree. Morality has both objective (facts of existence) and inter-subjective elements (evaluations, context, etc.). So whatever elements are 'objective' are open to rational-empirical methods, whereas those elements that are inter-subjective are for other fields of study.



The reason I ask this question is that hambydammit said you can use the scientific method to evaluate morality.


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Hambydammit wrote: There

Hambydammit wrote:

There are some things that have been more or less universally agreed upon as "good" in advanced cultures. Equal rights for both genders, freedom from discrimination, freedom from undue censorship of speech or action, etc... Most post-industrial societies agree on these things, at least in principle.

To get any kind of accurate measure, you have to use the scientific method, set up tests, and try to determine if more people actually are living in a better situation than they were at some point in the recent past. For instance, we can objectively see that women have the right to vote, and they did not before the sufferage movement. This is better, based on the criteria that equal gender rights are good, so we have made progress in this area.\


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Yeah, I did, and I stand by

Yeah, I did, and I stand by that, provided you agree on the definition.

Sorry for mistaking your intent, by the way.

Todangst and Yellow have pointed out the inevitable subjectivity of morality, and I have no disagreement with them.  Clearly even with what I've called "the big things" there are exceptions based on unusual circumstances, and this is part of the dilemma.

However, once you've decided, through whatever logic you care to use, that "X" is moral, you can absolutely test it, provided you agree on what morality is supposed to accomplish.  In other words, if you and I could hypothetically agree that "Being honest with your boss about what time you clocked in this morning is morally good," and we also agreed that "morally good people are successful in their jobs" we could easily test those statements.

In theory, this would be a very good way to evaluate morality, but the subjectivity bug will continually get in your way such that you have to be extremely specific about circumstances to get any kind of accurate model of when a certain behavior is good or bad.

 

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One more thing...

One more thing...

I know my example about work is laden with problems. It was just a random example.

The ultimate point is that morality does accomplish something, or it wouldn't have evolved with us as universally as it has. People act morally because of very complex interactions of social pressures, the good of the group, the good of the individual, etc...

If there is a "goal" to morality, then there is a way to test whether people who act that way achieve the goal more often, or to a greater degree than those who don't. The rub is in agreeing on the behavior and the goal and creating a scientific correlation.

I didn't say testing morality was easy! But it is possible.

 

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Hambydammit

Hambydammit wrote:

Todangst and Yellow have pointed out the inevitable subjectivity of morality, and I have no disagreement with them. Clearly even with what I've called "the big things" there are exceptions based on unusual circumstances, and this is part of the dilemma.



So, understanding this, what does Harris have in mind when he says moral progress?


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I don't want to presume,

I don't want to presume, since I have not read the specific reference you're talking about. I assume that he didn't define it, and since I haven't read it, I will not speak to his definition.

For me, I'd say that moral progress would be defined as the increased acceptance and practice of behaviors that tend to promote general health and happiness within both individuals and larger social groups.

If you understand that the words "tend" and "general" are used for their specific meanings, and that there is no end-goal of 100% health or happiness, I think this is a pretty good working definition.

 

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I'm not convinced that

I'm not convinced that science cannot directly deal with morality. To me, this seems like the same artificial distinction that lies between science and religion. That is, people argue that religion is subjective, thus it cannot be directly evaluated by objective/empirical methodology.

In recent years, I've read some work that seems to show that this distinction or dichotomy between facts and values (or whatever terms we use) is false. The most obvious is Hilary Putnam's The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy.

More recently, I'm now reading Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, which argues that there is, in fact, a natural and universal moral faculty that expresses itself in different environments in different ways. Thus, morality will differ from culture to culture, but the underlying framework is universal (except in those people who, for whatever reason, lack this faculty--it's like lacking eyesight or hearing).

I do agree that at some point, studies in biology, genetics, etc we can only get so much about ethics. But when we deal with philosophy, we are dealing with cognitive studies, and I think that these studies will ultimately be able to be studied directly by science. Thus, morality can be studied by science, just not given our current understanding.

Morality is a word we use to stand for certain patterns of behavior that have certain effects. Due to evolutionary forces, certain behavior traits have been selected, and thus certain behavior traits happen to be good for the health of people as individuals and society. Had different circumstances happened, perhaps different traits would have been selected, and what the right behavior for our health and happiness was would be different. Thus, morality is ultimately relative to circumstance, but the fact is that our brains, physiology, and cultural environments are universal enough to recognize that we have definite limits to what actions we do that effect one-another are beneficial and which are not. We can study those things scientifically.

I'm waiting for the naturalistic fallacy to rear it's head here. I'm not saying that our natural instincts decide what is moral. I'm saying that because we are literally built very similarly and live in very similar types of environments, our conclusions, drawn from philosophy and religion, will also be similar. Science is a great tool to help us understand how we think about ethics, becasue it helps us understand how we think.

To say that science cannot attend to ethics seems to imply a form of dualism; to imply that philosophy is somehow not subject to the same rules as breathing, seeing, etc.  it would imply a form of Platonism. 

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hello wrote: Hambydammit

hello wrote:
Hambydammit wrote:

Todangst and Yellow have pointed out the inevitable subjectivity of morality, and I have no disagreement with them. Clearly even with what I've called "the big things" there are exceptions based on unusual circumstances, and this is part of the dilemma.



So, understanding this, what does Harris have in mind when he says moral progress?

 

Why don't you send him an email and ask? Why are you asking people what someone else thinks?

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I don't feel like digging

I don't feel like digging through my box of old books, but I think maybe Moral Minds is in it, although details are not forthcoming to my poor addled brain at this time.  I haven't read Putnam's book.  I'll put it on my list.

I honestly think, Shaun, that if there is a divide between science and ethics, it is a semantic one, not a strictly philosophical one.  I'd suggest that the real issue is not whether we can test the efficacy of a pattern of behavior in meaningful scientific ways, but rather whether or not we can agree on a pattern of behavior and a projected outcome.  This is where philosophy and semantics get involved.

My suspicion is that the word "morality" has too many connotations at this time, and we need more precise words to reflect, for instance, effective patterns of behavior for 1) survival of the family/society/species 2) health, 3) happiness, and anything else that can be agreed upon as a more or less universal "good."

Since many of the categories of morality conflict and overlap -- for instance, when the good of the family conflicts with the interests of the individual, there may never be a fluid enough definition of morality for most people, but I think saying that morality is untouchable by science is incorrect.  Rather, I believe morality is extremely difficult to quantify because of its multiple meanings and interconnected interests.

 

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Vastet wrote: hello

Vastet wrote:
hello wrote:
Hambydammit wrote:

Todangst and Yellow have pointed out the inevitable subjectivity of morality, and I have no disagreement with them. Clearly even with what I've called "the big things" there are exceptions based on unusual circumstances, and this is part of the dilemma.



So, understanding this, what does Harris have in mind when he says moral progress?

 

Why don't you send him an email and ask? Why are you asking people what someone else thinks?

 I think dialogue about what me means by moral progress would be fruitful; posted above are 10 myths about athiesm.  The last one, about morality is open to interpretation and may even be a challenging, interesting issue to discuss, especially among rational responders. I don't know how to contact Harris, but even if I did, I still think this is the ideal venue to discuss moral progress in an interesting and productive way. 


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So I suppose I can rewrite

So I suppose I can rewrite my question as, is there such a thing as moral progress? if you agree with Harris that there is such a thing as moral progress, what do you think he means by it, and maybe, how do you apply this to your own life as you make decisions?

if you don't think anyone can define such a thing as moral progress, can you point out where Harris is wrong?


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ShaunPhilly wrote:

ShaunPhilly wrote:

I do agree that at some point, studies in biology, genetics, etc we can only get so much about ethics. But when we deal with philosophy, we are dealing with cognitive studies, and I think that these studies will ultimately be able to be studied directly by science. Thus, morality can be studied by science, just not given our current understanding.

Morality is a word we use to stand for certain patterns of behavior that have certain effects. Due to evolutionary forces, certain behavior traits have been selected, and thus certain behavior traits happen to be good for the health of people as individuals and society. Had different circumstances happened, perhaps different traits would have been selected, and what the right behavior for our health and happiness was would be different. Thus, morality is ultimately relative to circumstance, but the fact is that our brains, physiology, and cultural environments are universal enough to recognize that we have definite limits to what actions we do that effect one-another are beneficial and which are not. We can study those things scientifically.

I'm waiting for the naturalistic fallacy to rear it's head here. I'm not saying that our natural instincts decide what is moral. I'm saying that because we are literally built very similarly and live in very similar types of environments, our conclusions, drawn from philosophy and religion, will also be similar. Science is a great tool to help us understand how we think about ethics, becasue it helps us understand how we think.

To say that science cannot attend to ethics seems to imply a form of dualism; to imply that philosophy is somehow not subject to the same rules as breathing, seeing, etc. it would imply a form of Platonism.

Shaun



When a philosopher says that "the certain behavior traits [which] happen to be good for the health of people as individuals and society" (say like, traits like empathy or compassion) are themselves good (those behavioral traits), does he imply a form of Platonism?


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Discussing moral progress,

Discussing moral progress, other peoples opinions on it, and whether it even exists is all well and good. But discussing clarification on one persons points is irrelevant if the person himself can't, won't, or isn't able to clarify them himself.

"So I suppose I can rewrite my question as, is there such a thing as moral progress? if you agree with Harris that there is such a thing as moral progress, what do you think he means by it, and maybe, how do you apply this to your own life as you make decisions?

if you don't think anyone can define such a thing as moral progress, can you point out where Harris is wrong?"

I think the term is flawed. Morals are a community driven ideal, concieved to make life for those in the community easier, more efficient, and safer. They are unique to a culture, which has learned it's own lessons from the past. Since there is no set morality that all humans on Earth follow, the term is arbitrary. But I believe Harris' point was that you don't have to be religious to not want to go around killing people and causing mass destruction.

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hello wrote: When a

hello wrote:



When a philosopher says that "the certain behavior traits [which] happen to be good for the health of people as individuals and society" (say like, traits like empathy or compassion) are themselves good (those behavioral traits), does he imply a form of Platonism?

Not this philosopher.  I simply mean that certain patterns of behavior, due to the common construction of the machine that is responsible for behavior (the brain), will tend to survive to reproduce if what hey do is good for them and those around them.   

There is no need for any Platonism here.  There is no need for an idea or standard to attend to, as that idea is formed as a result of observing the behavior, not the other way around.  

Shaun 

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What I mean is, if someone

What I mean is, if someone says "surviving to reproduce" is -itself- a good thing, is that person implying Platonism even though the idea of survival is formed as the result of observing the behavior?

(Which is different from saying empathy is good for those around you because it promotes overall survival?)

I'm not asking about the need for a standard to appeal to in this case. I guess I'm asking if the philosopher invokes(?) a standard to appeal to when he makes a statement about survival itself.

Sorry if I'm misunderstanding your last post.


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hello wrote: What I mean

hello wrote:
What I mean is, if someone says "surviving to reproduce" is -itself- a good thing, is that person implying Platonism even though the idea of survival is formed as the result of observing the behavior?

(Which is different from saying empathy is good for those around you because it promotes overall survival?)

I'm not asking about the need for a standard to appeal to in this case. I guess I'm asking if the philosopher invokes(?) a standard to appeal to when he makes a statement about survival itself.

Sorry if I'm misunderstanding your last post.

 I'm curious what you understand as "platonism."  If someone invokes a standard, then that standard could be a result of observation of patterns, and not recognizing that the patterns are conforming to universal ideals.

This is closer to what Aristotle said about this than Plato.  Perhaps you are referring to later Platonism, which is closer to what you say.  

I would say, to your revised question, that we probably do invoke a standard of some kind.  I think we have rtrouble thinking about things without abstracting at all. 

Perhaps you are asking whether we assume some standard of good, thus essentially beg the question when we say that survival or health is good?  Well yes.  Without an absolute or pre-existing standard to judge, we must create the categories we use.  It's simply how language works. We have to express abstract concepts, so we need to create the parameters for the concepts.  We have to express concepts such as harm, pleasure, and how our actions help create and prevent these things.  Morality, good, and other terms are the words we use to express these ideas, so in a sense we create the "forms" that Plato thought that pre-existed and we are merely gaining knowledge of through intellect.  This was part of Aristotle's criticism of Plato, to say that the forms are merely recognized patters.  I agree with this criticism.

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Shaun has just said a lot

Shaun has just said a lot of what I've been trying to say, complete with references. I'm not particularly fond of invoking the names of philosophers when discussing things. It just seems like convolution in a lot of cases and sometimes it reeks of appeal to authority. I'm not pointing any fingers, just explaining why I seldom do it myself. (You guys probably have noticed that I don't mince words when I'm pointing fingers!)

What I fail to understand is why the question of the origin of morality is difficult to grasp. I know that morality gets really hairy when you start trying to codify it, but that's easily demonstrated to be a function of overlapping interests and multiple yard sticks.

Why does morality get singled out as somehow being separate from the kind of abstraction that makes complex behavior patterns quantifiable? If some abstraction were NOT necessary, wouldn't that be pretty bizarre?

 

 

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Empathy and compassion are

Empathy and compassion are helpful qualities to be selected for in a population of complex organisms such as ourselves to promote our overall survival.

Implicit in our decision (individually or by a population of people) to remain alive or to survive is the assumption that life is good, or at least better than the alternative: death/extinction of our species. Some people even think life is so good that they decide to reproduce and create more of it!

Because of evolution which is its own cause, we have access to morals based in nature which allow us to promote the promulgation and survival of our species, yet (to answer your question above) we also have access to this question of whether this particular end, survival, is itself a worthy one.

So we can ask this question: is survival itself is good? and other questions like, what aspects of survival make it good? is the alternative to survival bad?

Can these questions be answered empirically or logically? Can one provide a logical argument that survival of the human species is better than the alternative?

If we can't, does that have implications for a system of morals? For example, if someone shot a fellow just for the hell of it, would we in prosecuting him have the burden of proving that survival of the human species is a good thing?


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hello wrote: Empathy and

hello wrote:

Empathy and compassion are helpful qualities to be selected for in a population of complex organisms such as ourselves to promote our overall survival.

Implicit in our decision (individually or by a population of people) to remain alive or to survive is the assumption that life is good, or at least better than the alternative: death/extinction of our species. Some people even think life is so good that they decide to reproduce and create more of it!

Because of evolution which is its own cause, we have access to morals based in nature which allow us to promote the promulgation and survival of our species, yet (to answer your question above) we also have access to this question of whether this particular end, survival, is itself a worthy one.

So we can ask this question: is survival itself is good? and other questions like, what aspects of survival make it good? is the alternative to survival bad?

Can these questions be answered empirically or logically? Can one provide a logical argument that survival of the human species is better than the alternative?

If we can't, does that have implications for a system of morals? For example, if someone shot a fellow just for the hell of it, would we in prosecuting him have the burden of proving that survival of the human species is a good thing?

Survival is not good. Neither is it evil. It just is.

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I agree with Vastet that

I agree with Vastet that survival just is.

 I would say, going beyond that, that when we say something is good, we mean that something is good for something; some desire, intent, goal, etc.  

That is, one must assume or at least be within circumstances before the concept of good is even possible, let a lone relevant or recognized.  Without a perspective or an awareness, the issue of "good" is not even possible to consider.

To ask if survival is good is to try and step outside of the human perspective and try to judge it from an imagined transcendent perspective.  The problem here is that without anything to view sucgh a perspective, this question is nonsesne.

Now, given our abilty to imagine such a perspective, we could create such a moral perspective and ask whether our survival is good, but good for what? If we ask if it is good for us, well that's a tautology.  If we ask if it is good for the earth, then we are making the assumption tha the earth has any desires or perspective to ask this from or we are simply asking if we are doing damage to the environment in which we live, which ultimately is affecting us and thus is a similar question as above. If we ask if it is good for, say, the other life on the planet, then we have an interesting question.  

How relevant are other animals morally>  They are morally relevant, but are the agents? Perhaps.  So the only way to answer whether our survival is good depends on the perspective you take, what kind of survival (a few survive a nuclear holocaust, we moderate reproduction to balance our impact, we overpopulate and eventually destroy our environment---what does "survive" mean?).

These are interesting questions, but perhaps geared towards a new thread.

The relevant issue here is to reiterate that when something is good, it is good for something. 

Shaun 

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So I think I can ask now,

So I think I can ask now, when Sam Harris speaks of moral progress (which implies that morality is good in the first place) what does he mean?
"The relevant issue here is to reiterate that when something is good, it is good for something. "
At this point with respect to the state of mankind, what is morality good for? and what can be made better about it?


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hello wrote: So I think I

hello wrote:
So I think I can ask now, when Sam Harris speaks of moral progress (which implies that morality is good in the first place) what does he mean?
"The relevant issue here is to reiterate that when something is good, it is good for something. "
At this point with respect to the state of mankind, what is morality good for? and what can be made better about it?

Morality is good for our continuing survival and technological and societal advancement. The thing is that morals are not something you can just remove or suspend. Everyone who has ever existed has had morals. I suspect every life form on the planet with a developed enough brain has it's own moral code(though actually proving it is far beyond my financial capabilities). Even those who don't have developed enough brains tend to have instinctive morals.

As for what can be made better about them, only time can answer that question. And it will. In time.

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hello wrote: So I think I

hello wrote:
So I think I can ask now, when Sam Harris speaks of moral progress (which implies that morality is good in the first place) what does he mean?

I would imagine only Sam Harris could answer this. Moral progress, in my mind, would be progress towards a society that finds an appropriate balance of the interest of the individual and the interests of the society, in other words, the ease with which one can achieve survival (genetically/personally). Basically morals that allow societies to function in a way that people can live with minimal friction.


hello wrote:
"The relevant issue here is to reiterate that when something is good, it is good for something. "
At this point with respect to the state of mankind, what is morality good for?

Morality is good for the continuation and advancement of civilized society. Which is good because it is beneficial to the ease with which mankind survives. Which is good because survival is the natural goal of all life and as humans it is necessary that humans naturally consider their own survival good. 

hello wrote:
 and what can be made better about it?

For one thing, being as that this is the site it is, working towards removing (by peaceful means; education, etc.) the means by which men/women justify their tribal conflicts and anti-social behaviors. 

 

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