It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sam Harris Disentangles Is/Ought

Many, many thanks to Willard, for providing us with a link to a sensible answer to the awful muddle that the people who seem bound and determined to avoid thinking clearly are propagating.

Sam Harris received a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. He is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He's something of a favorite among the committed atheists, a group with which I do not associate myself. Still, much as I don't care for the religion-baiting of Dawkins and the handwaving philosophy of Dennett, I find that this talk brilliantly elucidates some ideas I've been struggling to express even before this week's kerfuffle.

In the end, there may well be an is/ought distinction, but there is also an ought/oughtn't distinction, and that's the important one.


Update: see also Harris' lengthy piece on HuffPo

36 comments:

jstults said...

"If questions affect human well-being then they do have answers."
He's clearly got a utilitarian take on ethics. He also goes on to say that he's not making a claim that science can speak to very many actual values (the quip about not asking the supercomputer about having kids), but instead seems to be rather focused on physical health and well-being (which makes sense for a guy with his background). That's neat, a utilitarian neuroscientist. I think next we should find a talk by a deontologist astronomer.

His point about approaching ethics through reason is a good one, but does not speak to whether you could establish Right empirically.

Do we all have to become utilitarians so civilization can be saved from the coming climate catastrophe?

Michael Tobis said...

I'm not sure, but I'm sure we won't do too well if we spend too much time being hairsplitters.

David B. Benson said...

I think Plato had a stab at this. Not clear there has been any progress, rather recently a reversal, in the psusequent 2,400 years.

David B. Benson said...

Well, there is deontic ligic, which is consistent if one restricts to the relevant portion. (See relevant logic, or sometimes relevance logic.)

But nobody uses this AFAIK.

gravityloss said...

He doesn't address the philosophical point. Ie why for example avoiding suffering is a worthy goal and creating suffering is not - why any values exist. The axiom. He just assumes it and builds on from that.

Then again, the above is often philosophical nitpicking.

gravityloss said...

Nevertheless it is a good talk and exposes a lot of idiocy.

It is dangerous though. As somewhat of an individualist, I have the idea that if you give people freedom, then they can pursue a happy life of their own choosing.
If you have a council of moral experts, they could force you to do something because they could demonstrate that it should make you happier and thus it should be done.

Of course, that is still too hard logic that is quite alien to the real world, but it is worth thinking as a mechanism.

n-g said...

For someone professedly open to scientific answers to moral questions, Harris exhibits a remarkable amount of closed-mindedness (dodging the last question, for instance) and appeal to morality in place of science ('corporal punishment is wrong because we know it's wrong').

His thesis seems to be: (1) there's a set of fundamental values that we all share, and (2) science can tell us how to best achieve those values. If I've characterized this correctly, it's demonstrably false. Some of us value a good relationship with God, for example, with all other values proceeding from this, so #1 seems wrong. If we were all to agree on the importance of a good relationship with God, science wouldn't be able to tell us how to achieve it, making #2 wrong.

Maybe his thesis can be salvaged by narrowing it: make #1 say "there's at least one fundamental value that we all share". Harris uses human well-being as such a value, but the concept is too broad to be useful for scientific decision-making. Do we seek to maximize the average well-being of all humans presently alive? The average well-being of all present and future humans? Do we value the well-being of some humans (fellow citizens, neighbors, family members, ourselves) more than others? How do you quantify that? How do you deal with the fact that not everyone will be equally well-off? Is it better that everyone have decent well-being or that 95% have extraordinarily good well-being and the remaining 5% are just scraping by? Does it matter if that 95% earned it in some way?

In Tobis vs. Pielke Jr., if I may attempt to characterize it, Tobis's point of view is that science will generally point to a particular minimal course of action that is consistent with the values of the vast majority of people. Pielke Jr.'s point of view is that for your typical complex issue such as climate change, there are many intertwined values and most possible courses of action involve tradeoffs between maximizing one value and maximizing another, meaning that science can inform decision-making and make if-then statements, but can go no farther.

And to follow up on gravityloss, is freedom a value or a means to a value? We could have quite an off-topic discussion on that question and its implications for American foreign policy.

n-g said...
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Michael Tobis said...

Thanks, John. I can't resist pointing out that gravityloss, for one, is not American, nor is the majority of my readership, and neither is the problem.

I love philosophizing as much as the next smart person, but the point is still this: Our current trajectory is grossly suboptimal on most reasonable philosophies. This is because our philosophies are post hoc. We know right from wrong; we come up with religions and philosophies to be able to reason about the marginal cases.

The religions and philosophies, unfortunately, tend to get carried away and produce bizarre and basically inhuman extremes on core cases. So the best thing to do is just to be empathetic, reasonable, and contingent. Usually you can make a case for the empathetic, reasonable and contingent plan to most existing philosophies.

Tol comes up with a fringe case: people who actually want to hasten the apocalypse. I think a religion that reaches such a conclusion is malign and hopefully negligible. Clearly we have malign religious views here and there. Clearly they are in some sense wrong. We should try to set things up so they aren't very attractive and hence remain negligible. And we should neglect them.

The rational, values-informed expertise-informed spectrum of responses excludes the response that Pielke is gearing up to propose.

Pielke's response is based on wishful thinking. The fact that this follows on to a book wherein he argues, rather weakly in my opinion, for a sharp separation between expertise and values may or may not be coincidental.

But in any case he did ask me to have a look, and I got dragged kicking and screaming into philosophy and into contention. I think this is a time when we need to look for where we agree, not where we disagree.

jstults said...

Dr Tobis:I think this is a time when we need to look for where we agree, not where we disagree.
That's an interesting sentiment. The idea that seems to be behind Dr Pielke's policy design approach is that we should focus on policies that are robust with respect to the inevitable disagreements (philosophical) or irreducible uncertainties (scientific). Maybe you're arguing that he hasn't achieved his design goal, but you seem to have similar ideas in mind.

HowardS said...

I respect just about anyone for wrestling with these questions, Sam Harris included.

That said, his talk runs into some issues.

"Why don't we have ethical obligations for rocks?"
In fact, many environmental philosophers (e.g., as in Aldo Leopold's land ethic) do not limit the ethical sphere solely to sentient creatures.

"Values are a certain kind of fact. … In talking about values, we are talking about facts."
Facts and values are, in Hilary Putnam's memorable phrase, "entangled," but Harris over-simplifies.

"If we're going to talk about human well-being, we are talking about the human brain."
Harris will need to confront "the new science of morality," in which multiple moral foundations exist.

Proposition: GHG emissions are morally wrong. If our worst climate apprehensions come to pass, this moral case turns out to be far more significant than any discussed by Harris. Which culture is then most complicit? As Stephen Gardiner writes, when it comes to climate, we are distinctly vulnerable to moral corruption.

Michael Tobis said...
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Michael Tobis said...

Joshua (if I may), please call me Michael, or "mt".

I think Roger is solving the wrong question.

Looking for common ground without effectively solving the underlying problem is relatively easy.

The political debate often seems to be between people who think solving the problem is ridiculously expensive but adapting is easy, and people who think solving the problem is easy but adapting is ridiculously expensive. Roger offers common ground by saying the risks are small and the costs will go away if we just try hard enough, thereby making everybody happy and democratically telling reassuring fairy tales to both sides.

This is the right thing to do if the problem to be solved is political. But the purpose of politics, as politicians seem to forget, is not to solve political problems. It is to solve, actual, real substantial problems of governance.

Unfortunately, there is a fourth quadrant which appears to hold the inconvenient truth: pure adaptation is effectively impossible, and any adequate mitigation will be disruptive and difficult and at least for some, very costly.

The climate problem is probably going to be a big cost center whatever we do. There's nothing to celebrate here. It's like a medical diagnosis. Our goal is to keep it from being tragic.

William T said...

Unfortunately, there is a fourth quadrant which appears to hold the inconvenient truth: pure adaptation is effectively impossible, and any adequate mitigation will be disruptive and difficult and at least for some, very costly.

Here is the conundrum - the political debate has descended into a fight about the costs and who will have to wear them. The fact that the most obvious contenders - fossil fuel producers and consumers - have so much at stake adds a huge urgency to the fight. Of course that's just about everybody, so it's easy to foment disagreement and political chaos.

However, it should really be a values-based debate focussed on the morality of the issues. Our society has faced previous threats to its essential nature and (after initial infighting) managed to pull together to face and overcome the threat. So politically it is possible for a nation (and even for groups of nations) to address existential threats, even when there are a subset of dissidents who disbelieve the threat is real. But it seems that the only way that this can be achieved is by appealing to values-based moral arguments. You don't sacrifice your comforts for the sake of "x% of GDP or y degrees temperature". But you might be persuaded to sacrifice something to "save your civilization", or even "to save the world as we know it".

Donnela Meadows had a very thoughtful essay on this - http://wholeearth.com/issue/2096/article/72/chicken.little.cassandra.and.the.real.wolf - which is also very relevant to the whole advocate/inactivist debate that's been going on. It's well worth reading.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

Michael-

You are free to critique my views, but please do not continue to misrepresent them.

1. You write: "Pielke's response is based on wishful thinking. The fact that this follows on to a book wherein he argues, rather weakly in my opinion, for a sharp separation between expertise and values may or may not be coincidental."

My book, that you apparently read, is about how to integrate science/expertise and values through decision making, not keep them separate. Please get this right. I have written many, many pieces making this point.

2. You write: "Roger offers common ground by saying the risks are small and the costs will go away if we just try hard enough, thereby making everybody happy and democratically telling reassuring fairy tales to both sides."

Unless you have a bootlegged copy of my book, you have no clue as to what I have argued about the science or the politics. That much is clear by the fiction that you are writing here. To be safe, in the future please back your assertions about my views with evidence from my writings, otherwise, please stop making things up about me. It is really uncool.

Thanks.

Michael Tobis said...

Again, it's extremely hard to paraphrase Roger.

Let me say that the above is my flawed understanding of Roger's position in THB and my expectation of his position in his new book based on a recent talk he gave in Washington State.

I am sure I did not express his position to Roger's satisfaction. I am not sure that anyone does, but I certainly habitually don't.

I am genuinely sorry about this failure. I certainly empathize given what Tol has been trying to do to me. However, I can't really respond to Roger without stating my understanding of his position.

I believe he is going to be arguing for a very modest carbon tax, with proceeds going to innovation, in the hope that an alternative cheaper than fossil fuels will emerge. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that as long as fossil fuels are not charged for their externalities, that such a cheap alternative is possible.

It would be great if this worked, but I don't think we should bet the farm on it. This is what I believe the fairy tale is going to be. It certainly is a reassuring story Roger told just a few days ago. It probably won't work, much though I wish it would.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

Michael-

That is a really much better summary of my talk, thanks, but as you might guess there is much more in the book.

So if you cannot back up your claims of what I actually said ("risks small" and "costs will go away") then don't say it.

Misunderstandings of THB and my climate policy arguments has not been a problem, except among a very select crowd of bloggers ;-)

I note that you completely ignore the political and quantitative parts of my talk (the Iron Law of climate policy and the decarbonization analysis).

Arguing for politically impossible things is really no different that arguing for technically impossible things. The world is not going to massively increase the costs of fossil fuels -- this is a reality every bit as constraining as gravity. Sorry to break the news. Policy making must work within this boundary condition.

If policy makers are not going to do what you want, then what? Keep arguing for impossible things? Or try to actually make progress?

Patrick said...

Roger said:

"Arguing for politically impossible things is really no different that arguing for technically impossible things. The world is not going to massively increase the costs of fossil fuels -- this is a reality every bit as constraining as gravity. Sorry to break the news. Policy making must work within this boundary condition."

The nifty thing about politically "imposible" things is that the history of the United States (where I live) is a list of "impossible" things that, improbable as it seemed before they happened, where acheived.

Having listened to Roger Pielke's lecture, which was quite interesting, I was rather stunned when he came to the punch line and advocated taxing carbon and applying the revenue to more research, rather than actually doing something with a material impact. Acheiving what the French have done in the United States by any combination of technologies which would surely include nuclear would give us a fighting chance of acheiving some meaningfull mitigation.

Given the US history of talk of research with nothing impressive being built on the ground, and of nothing much being done when it came time for money to be spent on the actual research, this sort of talk is unbelievable.

David B. Benson said...

Deontic Logic
for those who prefer some rigor.

Michael Tobis said...

My response is somewhat different than Patrick's and it goes like this:

If politics says something is impossible and physics says something else is impossible, the thing that physics says is impossible is more impossible than the other thing.

Or, perhaps I'd better put it another way: if politics says nothing is possible and physics says something is inevitable, what will end up happening is not nothing.

Dang, Willard is rubbing off on me. The neverending maudit...

jstults said...

David B. Benson, I was thinking that Deontological Ethics would be the more relevant link, since it's in direct opposition to the consequentialist ethics underlying the talk. The symbolic logic stuff is interesting too though. I guess if we were going to have a supercomputer tell us if we should have kids, then we'd need to be able to give it the correct software...

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

Patrick:

"Acheiving what the French have done in the United States by any combination of technologies which would surely include nuclear would give us a fighting chance of acheiving some meaningfull mitigation."

Indeed, this is perfectly consistent with what I recommend. We appear to agree!

Michael:

"If politics says something is impossible and physics says something else is impossible, the thing that physics says is impossible is more impossible than the other thing."

You are wrong. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that you are a denier ... of social science realities ;-)

Just for fun, would you be willing to place a bet on the real price on carbon dioxide over the next 10 years in the US and China and the EU? Lets say I take under $30 dollars/tonne and you take the over?

Somehow I doubt it ;-)

Michael Tobis said...

We should not be betting on whether the surtax will be at a certain threshhold. We should be deciding whether the price should be at a certain threshhold.

Do I think we will come to our senses in ten years? I think we should decide to come to our senses.

If I have to bet, I'm pessimistic about an adequate policy on a ten year time scale. I wouldn't predict how that will impact on a carbon surtax even if I were optimistic. That's not really my turf.

In other words, no bet.

But something is going to happen sooner or later. If it isn't an adequate and timely policy it is a huge, though somewhat delayed impact. I prefer the former and will continue to advocate for it.

I do not think we should press our luck with constantly rising CO2 concentrations. To do that we need to reduce emissions to near zero. That part won't change. The longer we wait, the worse this is going to get, and that's pretty much all there is to it.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

Michael-

"no bet"

It seems then that we agree about political boundary conditions.

"To do that we need to reduce emissions to near zero. That part won't change. The longer we wait, the worse this is going to get, and that's pretty much all there is to it."

Talking about ends, but not means is empty (and perhaps even irresponsible) from a policy perspective. If you have an approach (a means) that can simultaneously meet scientific, technical, social and political boundary conditions, then you should lay it out.

Repeatedly calling for "we need to reduce emissions to near zero" without suggesting realistic ways to do so is a bit like saying that we need to end poverty, create world peace, eliminate racism, and end disease. Great stuff indeed, but how?

Absent a realistic way forward, you should probably be a bit less critical/hostile to those who are actually trying to address the means, even if those approaches are in your view somewhat (or utterly) imperfect. You can't beat something with nothing, and as far as I can see, you've got nothing.

In policy analysis, it is easy to be a critic from the sidelines - especially on really, really difficult issues. Recommending ways forward is far more difficult.

Thanks again for the exchange!

rustneversleeps said...

RPJr sez: "Michael:

'If politics says something is impossible and physics says something else is impossible, the thing that physics says is impossible is more impossible than the other thing.'

You are wrong. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that you are a denier ... of social science realities ;-)"


Is it just me, or does this seem kinda, um, value laden? Is this what an Honest Broker sez?

Bored, dazed and confused...

HowardS said...

Rust:
I wouldn't like to see a discussion on this important topic end with "bored, dazed and confused." Perhaps its threads can be woven together a bit.

David & jstults, Sirs:
Unless i'm mistaken, there is not a single ref to ecological issues in the Stanford article on deontological ethics. Aren't cases of "man vs. nature" categorically different from all the "man vs. man" cases examined by deontological philosophers since Kant? Isn't that (at least part of) MT's distinction in his comparison of physics and politics? Aren't assessments of adaptive management, ecosystem-based management &etc. based on observed (consequentialist, pragmatic) outcomes?

While deontological "thresholds" remain relevant - we can, for example, agree (most of us) on the abhorrence of any attempt to forcibly reduce human numbers so as to engender (consequentially) better ecological outcomes - the thresholds in this "threshold deontology" do not get us very far (in diverse, democratic societies, or in a culturally diverse world) in addressing the issues at hand.

For a more useful rigor, i point again to the book by Putnam, mentioned above, or to Environmental Pragmatism, in which Bryan Norton writes:
"Seeking a unified, monistic theory of environmental ethics represents a misguided mission."

Roger:
Confusing political feasibility with reality in a dialog like this is a poor choice of words. Our goal should be to clarify the language of the compass from that of the gyroscope. This is an example of what Ron Broberg called a "conflation" of different realms.

For transparency's sake, my blog's over here.

David B. Benson said...

jstults --- Yes, there are various theories of ethics. Presumably deontic logic is capable of expressing the axioms of each and then the logical consequences can be enumerated by a computer program.

I'm not sure what Sam Harris has against deontic logic; surely he knows of its existence. I opine that the level of discussion on this thread would be enhanced by rather more careful reasoning. [In the most recent exchanges MT and RPJr appear to be talking past on another, one seeming dismissing social realities and the other the physics, by God.

RPJr is perhaps ignoring the fact that
"if CO2 emissions continue at current rates (or even a small % of that) then necessarily eventually scoiety collapses (and so the prevailing social realites do as well)." I don't find anything debatable about the sentence in quotation marks, having read a fair amount of prehistory with the collapse of one society after another under much milder stresses.

MT is perhaps ignoring "democratic societies cannot (impossible) undertake all-inclusive group action (on the scale of WWII) without first being presented with a catastrophy." In this case the catastrophy is societal collapse, although I suppose that is debatable. But accpting that it is societal collapse, I conclude (hopefully a correct application of deontic logic) that democractic societies will necessarily eventually collapse under the impacts of too much CO2.

Gloomy, what?

Michael Tobis said...
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Michael Tobis said...

Well, it's been an interesting diversion, and I appeared to have picked up a couple of new commenters that I'd really like to keep around.

But I guess that having learned what I learned, I'd rather go to the dentist than the deontist.

The only absolute principle is that there are no absolute principles (except for this one)!

My advice, the advice I take from Harris (which I don't actually read in Dennett or Dawkins, though that is not to say they don't follow it), is simple. Be a mensch.

What is that, a mensch, you ask?

You have to ask? You already know what is it a mensch. A person who tries to figure out what's right and then tries to do what's right.

What's right? Being a mensch, of course. Look we have real worries, don't let's be combing over a fine tooth these days.

EliRabett said...

Notice the shift here: Roger

"Arguing for politically impossible things is really no different that arguing for TECHNICALLY impossible things."

MT:

"If politics says something is impossible and PHYSICS says something else is impossible, the thing that PHYSICS says is impossible is more impossible than the other thing."

Roger falls into the trap:

You are wrong. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that you are a denier ... of social science realities ;-)
----------------------------

Roger gets owned by his own arrogance, but indeed this is the problem. And, btw Roger, give it up, putting on the harumphing act that no one understands you cuts little ice.

David B. Benson said...

Michael Tobis --- Yia, there's the rub: the dentist will do yu some good while the deontist imply points to all the paradoxes in systems of formal ethical rules.

Actually, in my prior post I was using alethic+temporal modal logic, probably a variant of S5. Anyway, nothing deontic about it.

But if you really want to be a mensch, you'll have to resolve the paradoxes of ethical behavior. If you only want to be a climate mensch none of the paradoxes appear to apply. :-)

Florifulgurator said...

If it is impossible to inform politics of the impossibility of physically impossible pursuit, then we are not only possibly doomed, but certainly so.

It seems Roger is a doomer.

Patrick said...

At the end of the day we will either do what is needed to stabilize the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or we will fail to do so.

That is a point which has no subtleties.

Having made a judgment that our modification of the atmosphere and the oceans is likely to have very negative effects which on the time scales at which we commonly think might as well be forever, most people will conclude that immediate action is needed.

Hence there has been an effort by those who do not want action to convince others that there is no problem.

All of this seems comprehensible.

Does Roger Pielke believe that given an effective majority of people who give assent to the notion that we ought to halt emissions, that they would decide that the fate of those who would live with the consequences of their failure was irrelevant?

Is it possible that humanity is so completely and irredeemably depraved?

How say you?

Perhaps you do not feel that there is a problem?

Michael Tobis said...

Haha, Patrick, you underestimate the ability of people like Roger to manufacture subtleties!

Why they do this escapes me.

Nick Palmer said...

Roger Pielke jr wrote:

Arguing for politically impossible things is really no different that arguing for TECHNICALLY impossible things." and "You are wrong. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that you are a denier ... of social science realities ;-)"


This seems to show that Roger casually gives the Tinkerbell effect more power than it should have.

The only reason there is political opposition to the degree of effort needed to avoid what we are risking with unmitigated climate change is because of the wishful thinking of those who choose to believe there is no problem and who go on to propagate their complacent views, thus muddying the waters - people have become confused. Those who muddy the waters hold a powerful responsibility.

A simple risk analysis of the possibilities, such as Greg Craven did, suggests that the risks to the ecosystem of not acting to avoid a potential +4 to +6 degrees massively outweigh the potential risks to the economy of unnecessary action (if Lindzen's sensitivity figure proves to be more accurate). Until we have "run the experiment" we cannot be certain who will prove to be right so we must analyse the likely consequences if the warmists, denialists or luke-warmers are wrong - let the population clearly know what they are risking and hope that their political viewpoint changes to suit.

Roger appears to be saying that the degree of action required is politically impossible because too many people do not believe it is necessary or urgent. Those who, with their views and actions, do nothing to throw light on the situation but rather just comment that nothing significant can be done anyway, because people don't want it, just perpetuate a dangerous situation.

Unfortunately society has been developing over the last few decades to the effect that all peoples' views are regarded as being of equal value when it comes to a vote. Fine for purely political matters but when it comes down to the basic life support systems of the planet, the dreams and prejudices and the needs and greeds of people need to be modified to take reality into account -"you canna change the laws of physics, Jim"!

By all means let people vote about things and chances that will affect themselves but voting to take chances that can badly affect other people's futures is not so great... The strengthening of the Tinkerbell effect has weakened the ability of the majority to make reality based judgements. "Whatever you want" is now seen as politically stronger than "you can't always get what you want".

The thing about climate science is that it is uncertain. Short of using a time machine, we cannot generate testable hypotheses and test them to firm up the predictions of how the climate will end up. Until we know that, the only sensible thing to do is to analyse all the risks and consequences and present them to the public.

The various factions confidently/arrogantly claiming that they have "the truth" confuses the issue in the public's mind which cannot judge the fine details of the science or the degree of misrepresentation and propaganda around. Ordinary "Joes" cannot easily judge who is right, or likely to be right, but they can easily assess whether they want to risk the consequences that would accrue to a faction being wrong. Doing this assessment for each faction and getting then into the public domain should generate a clear political direction - a clear politically possible path to follow.

A position like Roger's "you'll never get the political will to agree the necessary, so don't even try" is just dangerous. He should have a rethink.

gravityloss said...

I think Roger's made a lot of sense at places here, although I very much disagree with his exact arguments.

1) It's not efficient to drive for "politically impossible" policies because of ideology.

2) Copenhagen didn't fail for science denialism reasons. (It's probably hard to see it inside of the US where SD is so prominent.)

x1) This doesn't mean that politics defines physics.

x2) It's still extremely important to fight science denialism. It's just wrong. And it's also a problem in democracies and even elsewhere when people start detaching from reality and steering the nations into idiotic decisions - it leads to physical actions that are bad. Just as an example of an individual case, say a spirit healer pretending to heal diabetes, and then a child dying because of that.