The Mighty Moral Landscape Challenge

Recall that Sam Harris issued a Moral Landscape challenge. He offered a $10,000 award (which would be matched by one of his fans) to anyone who could get him to change his mind about science determining what is right and wrong.

Recall that psychologist Jonathan Haidt predicted Harris would not change his mind:

Jonathan Haidt analyzes the nature of reasoning, and the ease with which reason becomes a servant of the passions. He bets $10,000 that Harris will not change his mind.

I know this is going to shock you, so I hope you are sitting , but… looks like Harris did not change his mind. As one of Harris’s fans acknowledges:

At any rate, I think Sam forked out the 2 grand but not the 20 grand, because his answer to Born, given here, is a rebuttal

So despite Harris’s complaints, it turns out Haidt was spot on accurate. And so was I.

And then it becomes even more humorous when one of Harris’s fans tries to spin this:

Surprisingly, there were over 400 responses to the challenge, which tells you how seriously people take Sam’s views.

LOL! 400 responses translates as 400 people taking a shot at earning at least $2000 dollars. Imagine that – money has a way of motivating people. But here’s the reality check – if so many people took Harris so seriously, then why did he have to promote his views with offers of prizes? He came up with the promo idea precisely because people were not taking his book seriously.

Anyway, Coyne posts part of the winning essay and I’ll repost it below the fold:

Neither of your analogies invalidates the Value Problem. First, your analogy between epistemic axioms and moral axioms fails. The former merely motivate scientific inquiry and frame its development, whereas the latter predetermine your science of morality’s most basic findings. Epistemic axioms direct science to favor theories that are logically consistent, empirically supported, and so on, but they do not dictate which theories those will be. Meanwhile, your two moral axioms have already declared that (i) the only thing of intrinsic value is well-being, and (ii) the correct moral theory is consequentialist and, seemingly, some version of utilitarianism—rather than, say, virtue ethics, a non-consequentialist candidate for a naturalized moral framework. Further, both (i) and (ii) resist the sort of self-justification attributed above to science’s epistemic axioms; that is, neither is any more self-affirming than the value of health and the goal of promoting it. You might reply that the non-epistemic axioms of the science of medicine enjoy the sort of self-justification you have in mind for the moral (and likewise non-epistemic) axioms of your science of morality. But then your second analogy, between the science of medicine and your science of morality, fails. The former must presuppose that health is good and ought to be promoted; otherwise, the science of medicine would seem to defy conception. In contrast, a science of morality, insofar as it admits of conception, does not have to presuppose that well-being is the highest good and ought to be maximized. Serious competing theories of value and morality exist. If a science of morality elucidates moral reality, as you suggest, then presumably it must work out, not simply presuppose, the correct theory of moral reality, just as the science of physics must work out the correct theory of physical reality.

Sounds good to me. In fact, I think this part is key – “If a science of morality elucidates moral reality, as you suggest, then presumably it must work out, not simply presuppose, the correct theory of moral reality, just as the science of physics must work out the correct theory of physical reality.”

It must work out.

The way we can tell that Harris is peddling pseudoscience is simple – he is not interested in working it out. Since publishing his book/thesis, has Harris made ANY effort to do some science to elucidate moral reality? Has he ever gone in the lab and run some experiments to resolve a moral issue? No. And, no.

Yes, he made some money selling the idea that science could determine right and wrong, but that’s all he has accomplished. He cannot go into the lab to elucidate moral reality for the simple reason that science cannot elucidate moral reality. His actions, or in this case, his lack of action, speaks much more loudly than his words.

Finally, Coyne also posts an excerpt from Harris’s response:

Ryan wrote that my “proposed science of morality cannot offer scientific answers to questions of morality and value, because it cannot derive moral judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world.” But no branch of science can derive its judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world. We have intuitions of truth and falsity, logical consistency, and causality that are foundational to our thinking about anything. Certain of these intuitions can be used to trump others: We may think, for instance, that our expectations of cause and effect could be routinely violated by reality at large, and that apes like ourselves may simply be unequipped to understand what is really going on in the universe. That is a perfectly cogent idea, even though it seems to make a mockery of most of our other ideas. But the fact is that all forms of scientific inquiry pull themselves up by some intuitive bootstraps.

And there ya go. “Science” determines what is right and wrong by relying on intuition! So now we know why Harris wants to dumb down the definition of science. He wants to draw upon his atheistic/Buddhist intuitions and then, like a typical pseudoscientist, label them science, relying on his dumbed down definitions.

Harris has not come up with any way of using science to determine what is right and what is wrong. He has just come up with an elaborate rationalization for labeling his moral musings as “science.” It sells books and fits into his cultural agenda. But that’s all it does.

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7 Responses to The Mighty Moral Landscape Challenge

  1. Dhay says:

    Ryan Born has summarised Sam Harris’ argument that science can determine moral values in his blog He says that Sam Harris’s “worst possible misery for everyone” argument (WPME, for short) — the argument is named for its key premise: “The worst possible misery for everyone is bad” — attempts to defend this conclusion:

    Increases/decreases in the well-being of conscious creatures fully determine which states of the world are morally better/worse.

    It occurs to me that this does not derive from science, does not derive from intuition, but instead has come straight out of the Buddhist Sutras and from the Bodhisattva vow — which vow we can reasonably expect Harris to have taken — to take strenuous steps to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings. (This is usually phrased in terms that one will not settle into complete sufferingless enlightenment oneself until one has led all other sentient beings to enlightenment.)

    Here’s an example, a prayer — which doubles as a Bodhisattva vow — from Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, or “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”:

    May I be a protector to those without protection, a leader for those who journey, and a boat, a bridge, a passage for those desiring the further shore.
    May the pain of every living creature be completely cleared away.
    May I be the doctor and the medicine and may I be the nurse for all sick beings in the world until everyone is healed.

  2. Dhay says:

    With Sam Harris’ goal being the fulfilment of the Bodhisattva vow, his Moral Landscape argument can be seen as not being about how science can disinterestedly determine values, but the cobbling together of a philosophical argument to specifically justify Buddhist values; his argument is thus philosophy of religion — which according to Peter Boghossian — see — should disqualify Harris “from sitting at the adult table.”

    Come on, Peter, speak up about this outrage to New Atheist values.

  3. Michael says:


    Very interesting comments.

  4. Dhay says:

    I think it is no mere coincidence that the Moral Landscape Challenge has come to its climax now, just as preview copies of Sam Harris’ “Waking Up” are hitting the doorsteps of potentially sympathetic and influential (among his expected readership) reviewers like Jerry Coyne. The whole exercise looks like a carefully planned PR stunt where, for a mere $2,000, Harris generated attention for himself and his views one full year before publication, has generated continuing interest since, and can now announce the result of the Challenge in a blaze of publicity just at the time when he will be mentioned as the author of a new book you can buy, due out imminently.

    And what will be especially newsworthy is that he is now able to claim, as planned, that he has refuted the very best argument against his views, which must therefore be correct and wonderful — and by implication that what’s in his new book will also be correct and wonderful. As a piece of self-publicity, it is a master-stroke.

    Cannily, Harris “guided” the challenges into a few railway lines of approach that were what he “would consider a proper demolition of [his] thesis” — in effect, “You will challenge my views only on ground of my own choosing”.

    Also cannily, Harris hamstrung the challenges to his Moral Landscape arguments by limiting the challenges to a mere 1,000 words; he justifies this by saying, “Assuming that the winning essay is a good one, it will most likely serve as an opening statement in a longer exchange. I will give the winning author every reasonable opportunity to persuade me and claim the larger prize”; but where is this longer exchange — in his latest blog Harris “clarifies” that: “Originally, I had planned to have an extended conversation with the winning author, with Russell Blackford serving as both moderator and commentator. In the end, this design proved unworkable—and it was not for want of trying on our parts. I know I speak for both Ryan and Russell when I say that our failure to produce an acceptable text was frustrating. However, rather than risk boring and confusing readers with our hairsplitting and backtracking, we’ve elected to simply publish Russell’s “Judge’s Report” and Ryan’s essay, followed by my response”. (My emphases.)

    Harris’ wish not to bore and confuse readers with hairsplitting and backtracking sounds very familiar; it’s familiar from just a few months ago, when Daniel Dennett challenged Harris’ book, “Free Will”: Harris wanted (but failed to achieve) a private exchange of views, followed by Harris blogging an essentially disagreement-free (to avoid bad publicity) “acceptable text”.

    Born uses exactly 1,000 words, and that’s all he has been allowed, despite promises, for the promised published development of his argument has been suppressed — censored — by Harris; but Harris’ rebuttal — counter-rebuttal suppressed — is more than four times longer, so it’s not exactly a level playing field, is it. Of course, it never was going to be a level playing field and a full exposition of Born’s challenge, for a publicly successful challenge — and Harris has engineered that we will not be able to judge whether or not it was a failed or a successful challenge (or not on Harris’ website, anyway) — a publicly successful challenge to Harris’ Moral Landscape argument could only be a PR disaster for Harris, and unallowable; Harris has, as planned from the start, claimed victory.

  5. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris has been in a flurry of blogging activity, recently. It’s coming up to “Waking Up” publication time: what Harris is blogging now is directly relevant to good PR and promoting book sales – and preventing bad PR and lost sales.

    His May 2014 “Adventures in the Land of Illness” blog lists Harris’ increasing frailty: one problem is a hip injury (from Brazilian Ju-Jitsu), which makes him “feel like someone’s shuffling grandpa”, and from which he is slowly recovering.

    Worse is: persistent moderate tinnitis, episodic hearing loss, and dizziness, which are together symptomatic of Ménière’s disease. “A few minutes online can yield a bounty of terrors: Ménière’s sufferers sometimes have something called a “drop attack” – a sudden onset of vertigo so severe that it literally knocks them off their feet and keeps them down for hours. There is no acknowledged cure for this condition, and the available treatments seem both risky and ineffective. Receiving a diagnosis of Ménière’s, I was told to go on a low-sodium diet and cut out alcohol and caffeine – life changes that appeared calculated to further depress me.”

    A drop attack is indeed a horrid prospect, his general health seems poor, and his prospects poor and depressing.

    I think Harris is afraid that, at a time when his book – a book claiming how meditation can relieve the suffering of sentient beings – is imminently to be published, he is likely literally to fall over, with a blaze a publicity, at some press conference, book signing session, conference, or other public place and dramatically and publicly display his own suffering. He wants to forestall the expected harmful publicity.

    The blog’s bottom line is: “My vestibular symptoms first emerged as I was finalizing the text of Waking Up, so I do not discuss them in the book. The point of this essay is to report that the case I make in the book still stands: Meditation really works – at least at my current level of inconvenience. It is possible to accept the present moment fully, even when it isn’t the present one wants. If this offers encouragement to any of you who are dealing with similar challenges, I will be very happy”.

    I agree that one can be suffering yet remain happy – ask many marathon runners, especially the Sri Chinmoy self-transcendence people, some of whom run 144-hour six-day races. What galls me is that, Harris having many times recited the usual New Atheist argument/rant that there cannot be a loving God because, well, just look at the suffering in the world, he here turns about-face and says that, rightly viewed (through eyes and mind trained by Buddhist meditation), it’s actually a wonderful world despite the suffering.

    He can’t have it both ways.

  6. Michael says:

    I think there is a correlation between extensive use of pain pills and Ménière’s sufferers

  7. Dhay says:

    > Sam Harris’ ‘Worst Possible Misery For Everyone’ [is bad] argument — says Ryan Born — attempts to defend this conclusion: “Increases/decreases in the well-being of conscious creatures fully determine which states of the world are morally better/worse.”

    “Fully determine”, eh. By what metric? This one? —

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