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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

Just watched an interesting TED talk by Sam Harris about how science can shed some light about questions of morality.

I like many of Harris' talks, and as a structuralist I agree with the overall premise that questions of morality can be investigated scientifically.

Thus I was looking forward to hearing his arguments; however, after listening to him I realized that I mainly disagreed with him instead!

Here, check it out first:

Eloquently articulated, to be sure, but I have so many disagreements with his view that... wow, where do I even begin?

1. "Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures."

Firstly, I don't know which moral philosopher would agree with Harris' definition of "values", but defines "values" as "the ideals, customs, institutions, etc., of a society toward which the people of the group have an affective regard."

In common language the term "values" has a very strong social component which is missing in Harris' definition - making "values" appear to be some kind of individual-level property.

This is a very big problem. There is a difference between the moral sense/personal principles of individuals and the social values of groups.

Harris makes it look as if social values can ultimately be reducible to neuroscience, which in my view is pitching it at the wrong organization level.

Secondly, how would you measure "well-being" in the context of social values?

There are many cultures that consider some amount of physical/psychological pain to be an important aspect of a person's development toward adulthood, or to be recognized as a legit member of society.

Even if someone was able to create some kind of standardized "well-being" metric, how would you convince other people to agree with it?

Take for example, our "civilized" culture in Singapore where children are subject to at least a decade of institutional education, usually longer.

It is a system which regularly inflicts pain of varying degrees.

Does anyone think that most teenagers want to be scolded by teachers/prefects, spend their holidays on homework/tuition, learn calculus/linear law, or train furiously/contort their bodies in order to get silver for their NAPFA test to avoid PTP during NS?

So are all these activities immoral?

2. "There are truths to be known about how human communities flourish - whether or not we understand these truths. And morality relates to these truths."

During the talk, Harris constantly emphasized human "flourishing".

Harris was trained as a biologist, as was I. From a biological perspective, the survival of a population can be easily measured - in terms of reproductive fitness, children per woman, population growth rates etc.

But how would anyone agree on what "flourishing" means, let alone how to measure it?

Take for example, the Spartan civilization in Ancient Greece.

Spartan society was highly structured, militaristic and brutal - from the cradle to the grave.

Small or deformed babies were left to die of exposure. Boys began military training at age seven - deliberately underfed to encourage them to learn the skill of stealing food.

By eighteen they were trained to kill members of the Helot minority; at twenty they were eligible for military service and they would remain on duty until they were 60 years old.

If a Spartan soldier lost his shield in battle and returned alive, it was assumed that he attempted to flee and thus was subject to punishment by death or banishment. Even mothers enforced the militaristic lifestyle that Spartan men endured!

Yet, for such a cruel and warlike society, Sparta was well-admired during its day, considered by many people - even some of its rivals in Athens - to be an ideal state free from the corruption of commerce and money. Spartan women also enjoyed more rights and equality to men than elsewhere during that time period.

In terms of survival as a group, Sparta managed to maintain its political independence for several centuries.

So did the Spartans "flourish"?

And how do we critique the morality of their societal practices scientifically?


There are many, many other things that I disagree with, but it's late and I need to sleep.

Suffice to say that I am amazed to see how reductionist Harris' view is, and how much he is attracted by the concept of a universal morality - eg. continuum along a single dimension, fixed peaks and valleys in his "moral landscape".

I realize that the systems perspective is not immediately intuitive, and people, even science-trained people, like to see things along a simple spectrum of black and white, right and wrong.

This spectrum, especially for social values, cannot exist because of confounding variables such as short-term vs long-term benefit, individual vs group benefit, stability vs flexibility etc - there are multidimensional trade-offs that preclude simple optimality.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ash By Any Other Name Would NOT Smell As Sulphurous

The Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland must surely count as one of the most unpronounceable volcano names in the world.

Nonetheless, the effects of its latest eruption can be easily communicated.

Check out this satellite photo by NASA:

Iceland is outlined on the upper left of the photo, spewing what looks like atmospheric diarrhoea towards northern Europe on the lower right.

Volcanic ash clouds gradually spread over Europe causing numerous cancelled airline flights in... SINGAPORE?!??

That's right.

About 6,000 travellers at the Changi Airport have been affected by flight disruptions in Europe, many of them stranded at the transit lounges due to insufficient hotel rooms.

According to the Straits Times, about one in two travellers at Changi are transiting through Singapore to destinations in Europe or North America.

Also in that news report - an affected traveller Mr. Ken Jones said: "I am resigned to what is happening. It is nobody's fault, I guess, but of course I am annoyed and frustrated."

Understandably he is annoyed, but Mr. Jones may also add "relieved" to his mixture of emotions if he only knew what happens when a jet aeroplane flies through a plume of volcanic ash at 900 klicks an hour.

On the 24th of June 1982, passengers and crew of British Airways Flight 9 had the terrifying experience of just how that feels like:

Ah, the imprecision of the English language - volcanic "ash" sounds harmless enough, but it is not the same sort of "ash" that you get from burning paper or cigarettes.

Volcanic "ash" is actually made up of tiny, irregular pieces of rock and glass.

Oh my.

Would you like to know more?

More satellite photos of the Icelandic eruption:
- NASA Observes Ash Plume of Icelandic Volcano (NASA)

News of passengers stuck in Singapore:
- Stranded in Singapore (Straits Times)

Full video of the British Airways Flight 9 incident:
- Air Crash Investigation - British Airways Flight 9 (Google videos)

Another imprecision of the English language:
- Seven Years Of Science (Fresh Brainz)