Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Is-Ought Stretch

“Science has long been in the values business. Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, scientific validity is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; rather, scientific validity is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and
argument. This is how norms of rational thought are made effective.”

As much as I like Sam Harris and respect his brilliance, I think this statement is a bit overreaching regarding the sense of value and science.

We don’t have to value science to make use of it. Science works whether we despise it or love it. Science—the method and content (verb and noun respectively)—is built on probability and not truth (nor Truth). When Harris maintains we value science and “has long been in the value business” seem to smack of an equivocation fallacy. It seems as if he’s attempting to close the is-ought gap by pointing to facts that are about value and beliefs, but this only seems to muddy the water.

Further, how the brain perceives facts vs. values has no bearing on validity nor does it produce any concrete evidence that one could pass for knowledge of the external world.

 From a personal anecdote:  as a teenager, watching William Friedkin’s 1973 film “The Exorcist” at the theater was just as scary as a midnight walk in a real cemetery—if not more. I’m sure my brain would have tweaked a fMRI in either case and produced real “facts and evidence” but the threat of demonic possession is right there along with zero in both cases and has no bearing on the validity of spirits (angelic or demonic) the real world. 

So, there are some facts without values because value is a human construct and facts (like rocks) are...well...just facts: "there" whether we like it or not. 


  1. You've been a consistent Humean, Dean. But a lot's at stake here, because if nontheists want to take the offensive against charge of relativism, amoralism, etc., it would be nice to say the research program is rolling & (though it won't be coming to a halt any time soon) holds some promise.

  2. I think this may be misconstruing the point. I took his point to be that scientists only do their job properly and fully if they place a great value in being methodical with their work, adhering to the rules of reason, being open-minded to their evidence, etc. etc.

    If scientists do not value these things, they do sloppy jobs and the question of whether science 'works' or not becomes moot, since no one is really doing it.

  3. Your example could be used to prove "facts" about the consequences of effective direction of a horror movie and/or the results of folklore about graveyards. The Exorcist took proven conventions of horror filmmaking and stretched them just beyond the limit of what had been done to that point, but imagine the effect of a more contemporary possession-themed horror movie would have had on you at the time compared to how it is perceived by today's teenager. That is a continuum that could be reasonably measured and analyzed.

    Similarly, the mythology of cemeteries is nothing particularly new, and, according to Harris' definition of "science" as the whole of empirical experience, it could be also explored in more diverse ways than just an adolescent's emotional reaction.

    I think that Harris might sometimes put too much emphasis on "states of the human brain". There are also states of cultural discourse and social conversation that can play a role in how we look at what he calls 'science'. I guess that's probably why he hasn't suggested a standard for measuring morality so far. It won't be an easy task, and there is almost certainly more to it than one New York Times Best-Seller can hold.