Sam Harris

The will is caused, not free

By Brian Earp

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The will is caused, not free

Everyone is talking about free will these days. Sam Harris has a new book out. Eric MacDonald has weighed in on that. Jerry Coyne, Paul Bloom, and some philosopher-types have a debate going on in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And way back in 2009 the Society for Personality and Social Psychology hosted a “showdown” between psychologists Roy Baumeister and John Bargh on the topic: What does the ‘free’ in ‘free will’ really mean? [A video of Bargh's half can be seen here. Baumeister is here.]

The SPSP conference led to a fiery exchange of blog posts between the two principles, and then to a more sedated pair of papers in the society’s newsletter, Dialogue. Baumeister enlisted Kathleen Vohs to co-author his piece, and Bargh (for some reason) enlisted me. Here is what Professor Bargh and I had to say – after this delightful FoxTrot comic by Bill Amend.

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Sam Harris is wrong about science and morality

By Brian Earp (Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.)

WATCH MY EXCHANGE WITH SAM HARRIS AT OXFORDON YOUTUBE HERE.

I just finished a booklet by “New Atheist” Sam Harris — on lying — and I plan to write about it in the coming days. But I want to dig up an older Harris book, The Moral Landscape. Why? Because it still makes me grimace.

I say “still” because I read the book months ago. I just haven’t yet vented my bafflement. Permit me to gripe, then, about Harris’ (aging) “bold new” claim — presented in his book — that science can “determine human values” or “tell us what’s objectively true about morality” or “give us answers about right and wrong” or however else you package this fiction.

In his new book (the one about lying) Harris says, in effect, you should never, ever, do it — yet his pretense in The Moral Landscape to be revolutionizing moral philosophy seems to me the very height of dishonesty. What he actually does in his book is plain old secular moral reasoning — and not very well — but he claims he’s using science to decide right from wrong. That Harris could be naive enough to think he’s really bridged the famous “is/ought” chasm seems incredible, and so I submit that he’s exaggerating* to sell books. Shame on him.

*A previous version of this post had the word “lying” here, but I was told that my rhetorical flourish might be interpreted as libel. I hope “exaggerating” is sufficiently safe. Now onward to my argument:

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What is it like to be a bee?

Do bees have feelings? What would that mean? And if they do have feelings, how should we treat them? Do we have a moral obligation toward insects?

Honeybees “exhibit pessimism” according to a recent study published in Current Biology, and summarized in this Wired Science article. Pay attention to the Wired headline – “Honeybees might have emotions” – and to these choice clippings as well: “You can’t be pessimistic if you don’t have an inner life.” And, “invertebrates like bees aren’t typically thought of as having human-like emotions.” The implication, of course, is that these invertebrates have been shown to have them.

Inner life? Human-like emotions? Is there “something it is like,” then, to be a bee?

From an ethics standpoint, questions like these make a big difference. Continue reading

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