There’s been a fair bit of blogosphere buzz about Sam Harris‘s recent TED talk, entitled “Science can answer moral questions.” I didn’t expect to agree much with Harris, given my usual objections to empiricist scientism and related attempts to exalt “science” against “religion.” And I think there are indeed a number of problems with Harris’s view. And yet there’s quite a lot that Harris gets right – at least as much, I think, as most of his critics.
The most widely read response to Harris (and the one that Harris himself responded to at length) is one by Sean Carroll. I find the Harris-Carroll debate instructive because both seem to miss the most important point; and that, in turn, would seem to be because both fall prey to an unfortunate empiricism.
At the heart of the debate is the supposed dichotomy between “facts” and “values,” or “is” and “ought.” (I would rather say “should” than “ought,” because “ought” sounds increasingly rare and archaic in contemporary North American English, but that’s a quibble.) Harris insists that values are a kind of fact, even objective fact, so that “should” or “ought” statements have a meaning grounded in reality, not entirely relative to or dependent upon the subjects making the claim. “Should” statements, on this view, are a kind of “is” statement. In this, I think, Harris is entirely right.
Where Harris slips up is in missing the elision of “fact” with “empirical fact.” Continue reading