Facts and Values/Science and Religion: Notes on the Sam Harris Discussions (Part I)

Sam Harris and I met in Vancouver on June 24 and 25 for what amounted to five hours of intense discussion about the possibility of a universal morality with a solid foundation. We are continuing our discussion (adding Douglas Murray into the mix) in Dublin on July 14 (tickets available here) and in London on July 16 (tickets available here).

We discussed what such a morality might look like, whether it could be grounded in the world of facts, and how that grounding might occur, if it was possible. In more detail, we debated the relationship between science and religion, facts and values, enlightenment rationality and narrative thought, and tradition vs the necessity for new discovery and update of traditional belief.

Here’s what Harris agreed was a fair summary of his position, a brief statement of my counterposition, and a recap of the arguments that he leveled at me:

Harris’s claims (derived primarily from our discussion and from The Moral Landscape)

We face two deep and fundamental threats to psychological and social stability: religious fundamentalism (on the right, essentially) and moral relativism/nihilism (on the left). To buttress ourselves in a somewhat permanent manner against those threats, we require the development of value system grounded in something non-arbitrary—something real.

The domain of real is the factual domain: factual as defined by science. We can begin with the most basic and necessary of facts. Lives differ in their quality. Some lives are self-evidently bad. Such lives are composed primarily of privation and subjugation to tyranny. They are nasty, brutal and short (to paraphrase the philosopher Hobbes). Other lives are comparatively good. The people living them are not materially deprived in any vital sense, and have a range of opportunities for living meaningful and productive lives in front of them. We can all agree that the bad life is bad and the good life is good.

We can foster well-being (Harris’s term for the primary aspect of the good life) and help people flourish. We can and should inform the idea of well-being and flourishing with empirical data.

This does not mean, however, that all spiritual ideas are without grounding. But we need to dispense with the dogma within which they are ensconced, as it tends toward a counterproductive fundamentalism.

A summary of my ideas

  1. I see no simple way of directly deriving values from facts, because there are a practically infinite number of facts, and the method of sorting and arranging them cannot be derived self-evidently from that sea of information;
  2. In consequence of (2), we need intermediary structures to arrange facts into values;
  3. Those intermediary structures take the form of stories (or personalities, or game—viewed from a slightly different perspective) and these are not simply “facts”;
  4. I therefore believe that Harris’s description of the good and bad life is by necessity a moral claim, not a factual claim (this does not mean that I think that it is invalid) – a story, in fact, about how to live, masquerading as a fundamental fact.

Harris’s criticisms of my ideas:

We do not need to be connected to stories (ancient stories, in particularly) to thrive. Furthermore, the ancient stories that we cling to are:

  1. Too-frequently pathological in their conceptualization and harmful in their details;
  2. Dangerously outdated, now, even if useful in the past;
  3. Dangerous insofar as they pose a threat to science and enlightenment values, which are the true saviors of humanity;
  4. Subject to too many potential interpretations for any modern usage to be reliably derived (through interpretation as metaphor, for example);
  5. Susceptible to interpretations which confer upon the interpreter a sense of and then a claim to revealed truth.

In conclusion: It is facts, not stories, that constitute the ground for the proper science of well being.

My objections to Harris’s position, as stated, and to his criticism:

  1. The pathway from the facts to values is by no means clear. This is partly because the value of an object does not exist in the object, but in the socially-mediated and biologically-grounded agreement about what the object is worth (how much people will work for it; what people will offer or sacrifice or trade for it; sacrifice for it). The value of an antique is not to be discovered in a materialist examination of the antique. It might be objected: the social value is also a “fact.” But this only means that what constitutes a “fact” is becoming very broad (and very distant from any straightforward materialist grounding).
  2. The argument leveled at textual interpretation (“too many possible interpretations”) applies equally—and equally devastatingly—to the “values from facts” approach, as deriving values from facts requires interpretation, just like deriving meaning from text.
  3. The measurement of flourishing or well-being has not yet been rendered even remotely possible in the actual scientific literature (where it basically collapses to the opposite of trait neuroticism, which is a measure of temperament). Worse, the conception of “well-being” is a black box which hides all the complexity of the problem of deriving values from facts so that a solution appears much simpler than it is in reality. It is exceptionally and perhaps prohibitively difficult to define well-being? Initial problems: Well-being for who? (Individual? Family? Social community?)? Well-being over what time frame? (This minute? This hour? The day? The year? The decade? Multi-generationally?). These are fatally complex problems, and they can’t be hand-waved away by the supposition of a hypothetically valid measure of well-being.
  4. Any simple “facts to values” hypothesis is certainly and definitively wrong, as the facts require an interpretive structure (which is why we need a brain: the facts do not speak for themselves).
  5. The interpretive structure is a structure of values (expressed in partially explicit forms in fiction of various levels of depth) and is much more accurately construed as a game, a personality or a story than as a fact (and such accurate construal is necessary if the problem of morality is to be solved solidly and permanently).
  6. The interpretive structure (the biological structure that undergirds motivation, perception, cognition and emotion) is a product of evolution, and has adapted to the facts, whatever they are, over an immense expanse of time. The facts that reveal themselves over the span of thousands or even millions of years are not the same “self-evident” facts that present themselves to individual observers in the course of the experience of a lifetime.
  7. The interpretive structure is hierarchical, emergent, socially-constructed (and the social landscape is so old that it is part of the environment that shaped the biology). Its structure needs to be understood—or at least considered—before any serious conversation about the derivation of values from facts can be undertaken.
  8. The structure of values has emerged bottom-up (reciprocity, trust, iterative games) starting with behavior, as shaped socially, through conflict and consensus and only then mapped in any articulate manner and rendered susceptible to rational inquiry—thus, as Nietzsche objected, ethics were not first derived rationally and then applied (and are unlikely to be derived in that manner in the present or future).
  9. The brain is actually adapted not only to the world of “facts” as revealed moment to moment but to the existence of the interpretive structure, instantiated social as well as psychologically (because that structure is functionally as old as the facts themselves).
  10. The brain uses narrative to guide actions in the world, as it cannot rely or even gain access to unmediated facts. The fact of that usage, and the fact of its selection by evolution, provides proof either of its necessity or its value (take your pick).
  11. I have used a consilient approach to constrain my textual interpretations (the necessity to satisfy multiple constraints — which is the same approach that applies to the emergence of the stories to begin with). I have interpreted the ancient stories which I think are necessary through multiple lenses (literary, philosophical, social-cognitive, biological, neuropsychological, developmental (in the psychological sense)) and only retained those interpretations that satisfy all those constraints simultaneously (that is particularly true of the work I did in Maps of Meaning, available (and now in audio form) here).