Facts from Values? Not without an intermediary: Notes on the Sam Harris Discussions (Part II)

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 continue 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). I have written three sets of notes about this event.

In Part I, which can be found here, I outlined 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.

In this, part II, I make the case, conceptually, that facts cannot be derived from values without an intermediary of process and structure (as the philosopher Immanuel Kant not only insisted but likely demonstrated), and that such an intermediary is reliant on the action of fundamental axioms, which are not in themselves either facts or easily derivable from facts (another essentially Kantian claim), and that description of that intermediary as “rationality” (which is what Harris provides) is radically insufficient.

In Part III, which will be available soon, I lay out the necessary function, mode of origination and psychobiology of that intermediary (providing a high-resolution solution to the problem of what Harris portrays without elaboration as rationality).

  1. In The Moral Landscape, Harris takes note of G.E. Moore’s support for the philosopher David Hume’s refusal to allow for the possibility of deriving an “ought” from an “is” (which Harris believes is possible): Moore states, essentially, the problem of infinite regress: “if we were to say that goodness is synonymous with whatever gives people pleasure, it would still be possible to worry whether a specific instance of pleasure is actually good.” (from p. 10). To prevent infinite regress, you have to put a stake in the sand and say “here I stand.” Harris does this by making a claim with regard to the universal undesirability of suffering, and I think that is reasonable (although Dostoevsky makes a very strong counter-argument in Notes from Underground). But it’s still an act of faith, and not a fact. It is (in fact) the necessary axiomatic presupposition that delimits infinite regress. It’s also the case that the statement “the good life is preferable to the bad life” is not a fact but a call to action, best understood (when stated) as a story and when enacted as a personality. None of that is remotely fact-like, as fact is commonly understood. To say it again: it’s story-like.
  1. In The Moral Landscape, Harris attempts to lay out a structure of ethics. He contrasts the bad life, with the good life, and assumes that the difference between them is a self-evident fact. He says, for example, on p. 201, that “there is no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding of that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it.”

He does not notice, however, that his argument is very similar in structure, from a narrative sense, to the old story of Hell vs Heaven, and his injunction to action very similar to the notion that we should strive to avoid Hell and to gain Heaven. Harris might object “but I am speaking of the here-and-now and not the afterlife” but (1) the narrative and conceptual similarity remains and (2) it is not obvious that the only valid usage of the Hell/Heaven dichotomy is dependent on its projection into the afterlife (for example, the idea that these domains are eternal is by no means identical to the claim that they only constitute an afterlife). Harris is also trying to provide a foundation for ethical claims, providing an alternative to the idea of single revealed truth (on the right) and moral relativism (on the left)—so, fundamentalism and nihilism. I conceptualized a set of similar problems in my first book Maps of Meaning (but considered all of it from a deeply biological, evolutionary and brain-based perspective) as the problem of excess order and excess chaos, respectively (and pointed out that the brain itself seems to be adapted to a world where chaos and order are the fundamental realities).

Furthermore, he doesn’t notice that there is a moral injunction built into his description of the world. Not only is there “Hell” and “Heaven” but there is “Evil” and “Good” – although he does not make this exactly explicit. Evil is the pattern of action and perception that produces “the worst possible misery for everyone” and Good is “at an absolute minimum… acting so as to avoid [that].”

This also opens up another consideration. The Hell that Harris thinks we should avoid (the worst misery for everyone) is not only what is produced by evil. The evil that produces hell is the most important aspect of hell. Hell is not only a state of being—a “place”—but a mode of being, a process (precisely that process that voluntary produces the worst possible misery for everyone, and that is aimed at exactly that). It’s the state attributed to Satan by John Milton in Paradise Lost:

“Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.”

Harris desires a morality grounded in something other than too-arbitrary revelation. That’s a goal we both share. But I see that as necessarily and inevitably expressed in narrative, and as an expression of the value hierarchy. That value hierarchy cannot be derived simply from the facts, as it is also and simultaneously the structure that must be imposed upon the fact before sense can be made (morality can be derived) from those facts. How is the value structure derived? This is a very complex question: but the answer is certainly not “through rational observation made by each individual during an individual lifespan.” The problem is far too complex to solve in that manner.

It’s an invisible hand issue. The value structure is established by consensus (mediated perhaps by reason and truth, depending on how those are defined or considered in a much more high-resolution manner). Is that consensus the same as a fact? Not unless you seriously gerrymander the boundaries of the concept of fact.

  1. Sam thinks it is necessary to derive values from facts. But on p.144 of The Moral Landscape he says “as far as our understanding of the world is concerned—there are no facts without values.” He repeats the claim on p. 201: “Certain oughts are built right into the foundation of human thought itself.” Furthermore, he says on p. 14 that “belief …. bridges the gap between facts and values? What gap? What is a belief? How, precisely, does it bridge the gap? This is of crucial importance, given his claim that values can and ought to be derived from fact. Belief becomes an intermediary. But what of rationality (another intermediary)? And truth?
  1. Stories are probably moral heuristics, sufficiently general to apply across situations (as opposed to rules or commandments, which is precise but narrow and context-specific, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails).
  1. A being must have a perspective. That perspective in part determines the facts that face that being. But from where does that perspective emerge? From the subject, and the community, and the world, phylogenetically and ontogenetically. The perspective bootstraps across time. It’s both built in, and derived from experience. But some of that experience occurs across millions or even billions of years (as an evolutionary-biology-influenced neuroscientist well knows). In consequence, the structures that determine perspective are in part the most ancient and long lasting patterns or structures or agreements. These do not necessarily manifest themselves to us in any self-evident sense in the moments of day-to-day reality. Chaos and order and the experiencing subject fall into that category. Does God? Certainly the dying and resurrecting sacrificial hero does, because the dying and resurrecting hero is the subject—the being—at least in the human case. Thus facts do give rise to values but (1) over evolutionary time; (2) in a manner that is, as well, socially constructed; (3) in a manner that is additionally constructed by the individual (particularly when error is encountered [it is through error that the corrective transcendent is contacted or reveals itself (this is the root of the ethical necessity of the call to adventure)]) and (4) as constrained by objective, independent reality (as Harris insists). But we are playing an infinitely iterating game and the rules for that game are not merely those that manifest themselves self-evidently in the world of today’s facts.
  1. Harris is motivated by the desire to reduce suffering, although he describes this as the promotion of well being. I share the former motivation, but am more likely to frame it as the reduction of evil (but tragedy and malevolence perhaps combine to produce unnecessary suffering). But the argument re “well-being” is flawed, psychometrically (how do you measure it? This is an intractable problem for an empiricist such as Sam, because measures of well-being are currently irrevocably flawed and there is no obvious way forward). The concept of well-being is also weak aesthetically, and this radically decreases its motive power. Since atheism is a mere doctrine of negation, as Harris described it in a recent interview with Rubin, an ethos arising out of it is necessary (to motivate perception and action). And “well-being” is almost certainly not that (apart from its conceptual shallowness and, perhaps, impossibility). We could measure well-being, Harris insists. In principle, yes. But no one has solve the problem in the least from the strict measurement perspective. We certainly can’t define “health,” let alone a positive well-being.
  1. Harris insists on an objectively-grounded morality, based on the reality of (unnecessary) suffering. He insists as well that some combination of reason and truth constitutes the process that will lead us away from that suffering. I cannot see why this is not a restatement of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which emphasizes (1) the tragedy and malevolence of life (Sam makes less of the latter) and (2) insists that truth, grounded in love, is the redemptive Logos. How is it that what Sam is doing is not merely a restatement of that ethic (under the guise of values-from-facts, but assuming the initial acceptance of the axiom that suffering, at least of certain sorts, is wrong). I believe that Sam’s work is entirely susceptible to Nietzsche’s criticisms:

“That individual philosophical concepts are not anything ca­pricious or autonomously evolving, but grow up in connection and relationship with each other; that, however suddenly and arbi­trarily they seem to appear in the history of thought, they never­theless belong just as much to a system as all the members of the fauna of a continent – is betrayed in the end also by the fact that the most diverse philosophers keep filling in a definite funda­mental scheme of possible philosophies. Under an invisible spell, they always revolve once more in the same orbit; however inde­pendent of each other they may feel themselves with their critical or systematic wills, something within them leads them, something impels them in a definite order, one after the other – to wit, the in­nate systematic structure and relationship of their concepts. Their thinking is, in fact, far less a discovery than a recognition, a remem­bering, a return and a homecoming to a remote, primordial, and inclusive household of the soul, out of which those concepts grew originally: philosophizing is to this extent a kind of atavism of the highest order.”[i]


“Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.”[ii]

Sam objects to David Humes’ distinction between is and ought: but his objection seems to be based in the (perhaps laudable) desire to dispense with moral relativism. As Harris points out, the philosopher G.E. Moore argued “that goodness could not be equated with any property of human experience (e.g., pleasure, happiness, evolutionary fitness) because it would always be appropriate to ask whether the property on offer was itself good. If, for instance, we were to say that goodness is synonymous with whatever gives people pleasure, it would still be possible to worry whether a specific instance of pleasure is actually good.” (p. 10, The Moral Landscape). To prevent such infinite regress, each thinker has to sink a stake in the ground and say “here I stand.” Harris does this with suffering, and I think that is an approximation to the correct stake. But it’s still an act of faith: the necessary presupposition or unshakeable axiom that delimits infinite regress. It’s also not a description of a set of facts, but a proscription about how to act.

  1. Sam posits that (a) genetic changes in the brain gave rise to social emotions, moral intuitions, and language; and (b) that these allowed for increasingly complex cooperative behavior, the keeping of promises, concern about one’s reputation, etc., which became the basis for cultural norms, laws, and social institutions (whose purpose has been to render this growing system of cooperation durable in the face of countervailing forces). I believe all of that to be true, but it’s not facts or even rules that emerge from this, as is the case in science, but general principles in the form of mimicable stories.
  1. Sam states, in Waking Up (p.5) that he “still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.” Fine. But what truths, exactly? And how did they get there? He states, as well (on p.6), that “faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.” So there was no genuine wisdom in place before the enlightenment? (because that is essentially the claim). There was no knowledge in consensus? How did our ancestors survive? How do animals survive?
  1. Harris posits (p.8, Waking Up) that “Morality could be a lot like chess: there are surely principles that generally apply, but they might admit of important exceptions…. It remains a fact, however, that from any position in a game of chess there will be a range of objectively good moves and objectively bad ones.” Not unless you first specify that it is right to try to win. Thus, the existence of the objective fact remains dependent (as it always is) on a priori moral claim. “Two things fill the heart with ever renewed and increasing awe and reverence, the more often and the more steadily we meditate upon them: the starry firmament above and the moral law within” (Immanuel Kant, in the conclusion to The Critique of Practical Reason). And from whence is the principle “it is right to try to win” itself derived? It is an (the?) integral element of the hero myth, as expressed in the deepest religious stories (which concern themselves precisely with determining the ultimate form of winning). What is the relationship between that and reality? The value structure is both exceedingly ancient and something that plays a determining role in the course of evolution: The consciousness of men determines the status if men (that is to say, men organize themselves into functional groups and elevate the status of the men who are the best at that function. Then women select from the top. Thus the votes of men and women as to who constitutes the winners determines reproductive fitness. The importance of this cannot be overstated. It makes a mockery of any claims that evolution is somehow and most importantly a random process. (Is there something metaphysical behind this? Is the ideal to which high status approximates something that constitutes the cosmic aim? Given that we evolved and that we approximate to an ideal, the possibility cannot be simply dismissed).
  1. It is the “self-evidence” of the unacceptability of undue suffering that in part serves Sam Harris as God. More accurately: his Savior is the embodiment of the ethic that motivates each of us to choose Heaven over Hell and to act out that motivation.
  1. If values can be derived simply from facts, what role is left to play for the a priori or unconscious substructure of human consciousness? (and “none” is not the correct answer). This question is what classically divides empiricists from rationalists. Is Harris an empiricist or a rationalist? Roger Scruton comments (from Kant: A Very Short Introduction, p. 21) “Leibniz believed that the understanding contains within itself certain innate principles, which it knows intuitively to be true, and which form the axioms from which a complete description of the world can be derived.” He continues (p. 27): “Neither experience nor reason is alone able to provide knowledge. The first provides content without form, the second form without content. Only in their synthesis is knowledge possible; hence there is no knowledge that does not bear the marks of reason and of experience together.” In Kant’s opinion, it is impossible to know the world ‘as it is in itself’, independent of all perspective (p. 22). From where does this perspective arise? In what is it grounded? Not in mere facts, as that would render the perspective itself unnecessary. In how to handle the facts?
  1. According to Scruton (p. 19), “Leibniz belonged to the school of thought now generally labelled ‘rationalist’ and Hume to the school of ‘empiricism’, which is commonly contrasted with it.” Kant believed both to be wrong, and attempted to “give an account of philosophical method that incorporated the truths, and avoided the errors, of both” (p. 21). This is the stance I developed and added a biological basis to in Maps of Meaning, discussed in part 3 of these Comments on Harris. Kant concluded that “objects are not not Leibnizian monads, knowable only to the perspectiveless stance of ‘pure reason’; nor are they Humean ‘impressions’, features of my own experience” (p. 27). “Hence, in describing experience, according to Kant, I am referring to an ordered perspective on an independent world” (p. 287. This is transcendental idealism.
  1. “Among true propositions, some are true independently of experience, and remain true however experience varies: these are the a priori truths. Others owe their truth to experience, and might have been false had experience been different: these are the a posteriori truths…. Kant argued that a priori truths are of two kinds, which he called ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’ (p. 27). An analytic truth is one like ‘All bachelors are unmarried’ whose truth is guaranteed by the meaning, and discovered through the analysis, of the terms used to express it” (p. 29). This appears to be the mapping of one concept directly on to another, akin in some sense to the mapping of a fact onto a value (or at least onto another fact), where the second concept is truly implicit in or even identical to the first. “A synthetic truth is one whose truth is not so derived but that as Kant puts it, affirms something in the predicate that is not already contained in the subject” (p. 29). It is such truths that require structure as a mediator, because the conclusion is not implicit in the premise. Scruton states, “what is original….is Kant’s insistence that the two distinctions (between the a priori and the a posteriori, and between the analytic and the synthetic), are of a wholly different nature. It is mere dogmatism on the part of empiricists to think that they must coincide (p. 29).”
  1. God is in part that in which you manifest necessary faith. Necessary because you have to start somewhere. And this necessary axiom is not a fact, but a way or mode of being, which is to say: a personality. It is of great interest in this regard that Harris’s axiom is not a fact at all but a moral observation. Question for Sam. What in better or worse is worse? Precisely? And how is this worse a fact rather than a fundamental moral claim? His answer is entangled in these claims: (1) “whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures—which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value—must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large…” and (2) “the very idea of “objective” knowledge (i.e., knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.)” (pp. 11-12, The Moral Landscape). But this makes Sam into a Kantian, even though he is claiming, as far as I can tell, to be an empiricist (since the facts speak self-evidently). What values are built into it (the “very idea of ‘objective’ knowledge”? And if they’re built in, how can they be derived from facts? And how exactly are they built in? Are these not moral intuitions?
  1. Sam states (p. 12, TML) “If we define “good” as that which supports well-being, as I will argue we must, the regress initiated by Moore’s “open question argument” really does stop.” Yes. By definition. If we agree on that definition. But why should we agree? And by what justification should we establish this agreement? It is not obvious to me, for example, that Genghis Khan or other warlord types would agree in the least with that definition. Their ethos (and a very common ethos it is) is more “everything I can get for me (and perhaps my descendants).”
  1. Harris’s bad life and good life are secularized versions of hell and heaven. The means of avoiding them is through imitation of a transcendent personality—we could call it the Logos, or even Christ, insofar as Christ is the image of the personality of the perfect man. It’s the image of that personality and its “worship” that constitutes the cumulative religious effort of the West. How does that differ (except in grandeur and imagination and power) from Sam’s conceptualization? Let’s call the bad life Hell and the good life Heaven and the pathway to the former Evil and the latter Good. Then let’s assume that the way and the truth and the life is a pattern of perception and action—a personality. Then let’s assume that this personality was fleshed out in the prophetic stories and elaborated in the clearest archetypal sense in the story of Christ: Ultimate responsibility for the suffering of being and forthright encounter with and defeat of evil, culminating in the transcendence of death itself (through death and rebirth). The a priori structures are neither propositions nor facts. They are personalities. (This was the great realization of the psychoanalysts). And, to be precise: Harris isn’t discussing the bad life as counterposed to well-being. He’s talking about a mode of existence designed to avoid the former and bring about the latter. Here’s a (partial but perhaps helpful definition): God is the mode of being you value the most as demonstrated or manifested in your presumption, perception and action.
  1. “Let me simply concede that if you don’t see a distinction between these two lives that is worth valuing (premise 1 above), there may be nothing I can say that will attract you to my view of the moral landscape” (p. 16, TML). Note the phraseology: worth “valuing.”
  1. There is an overwhelming plethora of facts, and combinations of facts. Which ones should we attend to, and how do or should we choose them? By viewing the world through a moral framework, a narrative framework, a framework of personality. What’s the narrative, and what’s the personality? Good vs Evil, against the eternal backdrop of chaos and order.
  1. “There are two sources from which our knowledge is drawn: sensibility and understanding. The first is a faculty of intuitions (Anschauungen): it includes all the sensory states and modifications that empiricists think to be the sole basis of knowledge. The second is a faculty of concepts. Since concepts have to be applied in judgements, this faculty, unlike sensibility, is active. It is a mistake of empiricism, Kant argued, not to have understood this crucial point, and to have construed all concepts of the understanding on the model of sensations” (p. 35, Scruton). “The corresponding mistake of rationalism is to think of sensation as a kind of confused aspiration towards conceptual thought. Thus Kant summarized the famous dispute between Leibniz and Locke in the following way: ‘Leibniz intellectualised appearances, just as Locke … sensualised the concepts of the understanding.’ In fact, however, there are two faculties here, irreducible the one to the other; they ‘can supply objectively valid judgements of things only in conjunction with each other’” (p. 35, Scruton).
  1. “If we understand experiences, then it is because they already contain within themselves the concepts that we supposedly derive from them. Whence came these concepts? Not from the senses. There must therefore be some repertoire of concepts contained within the understanding itself, and which defines the forms of its activity (p. 26, Scruton).
  1. For Jung, the Kantian a priori categories were personalities. The importance of this can hardly be overstated. Jung and the psychoanalysts insisted that the structure intermediating between facts and values was alive.
  1. The a priori category is the limit to the chain of regress (Scruton, p. 40). This makes Harris’s a priori category either that of the undesirability of unnecessary suffering or the desirability of perceptions organized and actions undertaken to reduce that suffering (more the latter, which is a personality)
  1. On error as proof of the world outside of rationality:” The transcendental unity of apperception is possible only if the subject inhabits the kind of world that the categories describe: an objective world, in which things may be other than they seem” (p. 44, Scruton). Wittgenstein’s elaborates on this, from a slightly different perspective, but making another point re the existence of an objective reality: “I can know my own experience immediately and incorrigibly, but only because I apply to it concepts that gain their sense from public usage. And public usage describes a reality observable to others besides myself” (p. 46, Scruton). Wittgenstein notes that experience is neither possible nor comprehensible without social interaction and the extended cognition that social interaction makes possible, as well as that social interaction and the extended cognition that proceeds from it would not be possible without a shared reality. Maybe this is another reason for the correlation between brain size and group size often noted: even perception might well be a crowd-sourced phenomenon (thus, the larger the communicating group, the more information available for use as perception). If true, this sounds the death knell for the solipsism of Hume: no (or limited) private experience without the public construction of that experience. This would be Piaget’s stance. However, I have never seen that interpreted as a refutation of solipsism, and roof of the objective independently existing world (although that us what it seems to be). Social constructivism as proof of the objective world?
  1. The social construction extends to perception itself, mind you, as that is created via shared gaze among other things right from the beginning. Same argument applies to motivation and emotion (it’s all bootstrapped). This seems particularly true in the context provided by the idea that things can be other than they seem. We couldn’t obviously be wrong in a solipsistic or purely imaginary world. We could be wrong, personally, if everything was socially constructed. We couldn’t be wrong collectively if there was no world to provide evidence of error.
  1. From Scruton, p. 46: “I can know my own experience immediately and incorrigibly, but only because I apply to it concepts that gain their sense from public usage. And public usage describes a reality observable to others besides myself. The publicity of my language guarantees the objectivity of its reference. Wittgenstein’s argument –which has seemed persuasive to many –shares the premise and the conclusion of the transcendental deduction. It relies, however, not on metaphysical doctrines about time, but on theories of reference and meaning. It does not argue directly that subjects depend upon objects. Instead it shows that subjects depend upon communities of subjects, and therefore on the publicly observable world that establishes their shared frame of reference.” This appears to be the Transcendental Deduction. This is all key to understanding the process and structure that derives values from facts (as we will see in part 3).

[i] Nietzsche, F. (1968a). p. 217.

[ii] Nietzsche, F. (1968a). p. 203..