Friday, October 03, 2008

Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark

For each of the past two years I have taken the presentations from the Beyond Belief conference and written a post summarizing and criticizing each presentation.


Beyond Belief 2006

Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0

I am going to do the same this year. However, this year I will be working under the advantage of actually having attended the conference. The organizers decided, for some reason, to send me an invitation. So, here I sit, in La Jolla, California, waiting for the conference to begin - tomorrow, as I write this, at 8:30 am.

The subtitle for this year's conference comes from Carl Sagan's view of science as a "candle in the dark". Each presenter is to have come to the conference this year to present "a potential solution to a problem that they have identified in their area of expertise or informed passion.

The presenters this year tend to be involved in studying the brain as it relates to some field of study - morality, law, politics, economics.

I have nothing in principle against mixing neural science and ethics. However, I think that there is a serious problem with how the current batch of researchers are going about the problem.

Specifically, I am a moral realist. Furthermore, I reject the claim that there is some hard distinction between 'is' and 'ought'. Loyal readers should be familiar with my claim that we should focus instead on the distinction between 'is' and 'is not'. Morality either belongs in the realm of 'is' (somehow), or it belongs in the realm of 'is not'.

However, this does not tell us where to find morality in the realm of 'is'. In past conferences, I have found that the neural ethicists were looking in the wrong spot.

Let me illustrate with an example. A researcher takes a hoard of subjects and performs brain scans on them while they think about planets and stars and take astronomy tests. He may learn a lot of interesting things, However, it would be a mistake to call this researcher an astronomer. Studying thoughts about stars and studying stars is not the same thing.

Neural ethicists seem to be unaware of this distinction. They study the brain while the subject thinks about moral concepts or works through some moral problem or puts down an answer on some moral test, and they think they are studying morality. They are not. They are studying beliefs and other attitudes on morality

Tomorrow, I will be able to ask this and other questions of the presenters (I hope). I will wait until the Science Network posts the presentations on line before I start posting my summaries. However, I should have something of a head start in writng them.

And, as I have done in the past, I note that the Science Network provides these items for free. If you (like me) think that there should be more of this type of information out there in the world, then please become a member, or make a contribution.


Mikoangelo said...

I suspect, potentially obviously (or wrongly), that this is because the consensus is that morality is completely relative to the observer. Simply put, the “astronomer” studying the brain thinks that the stars don't exist on the sky, but only in the minds of the people thinking of them, and that studying stars is only possible through the study of star thinkers.

martino said...


Congratulations on the invite Alonzo, you deserve it for the effort you have put in to reviewing the previous two conference - I should know as I ran out of time to finish my own reviews.

Your astronomy analogy is great as is Mikongelo's deliberately ironic (I assume) comment.

Enjoy the conference and I look forward to reading your reports.

Rob Pincus said...


I enjoyed our lunch conversation at the conference yesterday and look forward to your comments on the presentations.


Eneasz said...

Congratulations! While watching both the previous conferences I remember thinking several times "If only Alonzo was there to comment, this could be a fascinating discussion." I'm glad I wasn't alone in thinking that. :)

SpinalCracker said...

Am I to understand that you think that morality exists independent of the brain, the way that a philosophical realist might suppose stars to exist independent of the brain/mind? In other words, we all go extinct, and morality STILL exists? How would that work? Does morality exist as some force, like gravity, or are thinking along some other lines?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


No. I deny that 'exists independently of the brain' is a legitimate test of moral realism because the brain, itself, is real.

You can have a science of morality in the same way that you can have a science of the brain - a science that would make no sense if brains did not exist, but makes perfectly good sense in a universe where brains do exist.

I deny that you can have a science of morality by studying the brain alone. Similarly, I deny that you can have a study of morality by studying beliefs about morality.

Specifically, moral truths describe relationships between certain brain states and the outside world. This is a relationship that cannot exist if there were no brains. However, it is also a relationship that you cannot say exists or does not exist if you only look at brains or if you say that morality can be fully captured by a science of brain structure alone.

The study of stars would make no sense in a universe where stars do not exist. This does not imply that you can't have a science of stars in this universe where stars are very real.

SpinalCracker said...

OK, this makes more sense to me. So "moral truths describe relationships between certain brain states and the outside world" and the Beyond Belief presenters neglected to address the latter, or the relationship between the former and the latter - is this your contention? Do you think that Sam Harris is guilty of this neglect?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


For the most part, Sam Harris is guilty of this fault.

In The End of Faith Harris defended simple happiness-maximizing act utilitarianism - whatever promoted the most happiness was good. Happiness is a pure brain state, and can be studied (and maximized) independent of any facts about the outside world. Thus, happiness-maximizing theories fall victim to the counter-example where the best of all possible worlds would be to be hooked up to a machine that produced a constant state of happiness.

At Beyond Belief 3, Harris expressed a somewhat more complex view that recognized the fact that some forms of happiness were better than others, but he did not express any way of accounting for this value difference. The objection has been that the only way to do this would be to introduce some type of transcendental (supernatural) form of value that adheres more strongly in some types of happiness than in others, but this brings in a whole host of problems.

After his presentation at the conference, I sent him an email detailing a way of evaluating different 'sources of happiness' (desires) that did not require transcendental entities. His quick response was, "I totally agree, thank you for your email." I am not even sure that he read what I had written.

Anyway, I will, of course, discuss Harris' position in detail when I get into the Beyond Belief 3 series of posts that will come out starting this weekend.

Also, please note that when we even study parts of the brain, it would not work by studying people while they think about parts of the brain. Brain scans of people thinking about the cortex is not the same as studying the cortex itself. Similarly, brain scans of people engaging in moral thinking is not the same thing as studying morality itself.

SpinalCracker said...

Thanks for your responses. I'm wondering if you're misinterpreting Harris - he has often expressed discomfort with his own use of the word 'happiness', indicating that he uses it for lack of a better word, and intends something akin to well-being and not the simple emotional state - and if this might account for his terse response to your e-mail. But I await your follow-up this weekend. I'm very keen to see the Beyond Belief videos now, but they've been temporarily unavailable due to the great demand.

One last point: studying women won't lead to an ultimate understanding of marriage, but it would make a contribution to the understanding of marriage, n'est pas? Perhaps by analogy those who study the brain make a similar contribution to the understanding of morality, without pretending to provide any definitive final answers as yet?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Yes, Sam Harris made this issue explicit in his presentation. However, to avoid these objections, what he needs is a state that is not wholly internal to the brain. Any wholly internal state falls victim to the experience machine objection because any wholly internal state can (at least theoretically) be maintained independent of what happens in the external world. Only a relational state makes an ineliminable reference to the external world being a particular way. Which is the theory that I defend - that value is a relational state.

Also, yes, brain scans can make a useful contribution to morality. When I previously discussed the Beyond Belief conference, I mostly raised objections to the views presented. Since I have already raised those objections I will not simply repeat them this year. "There you go again . . ." I am actually hoping to do some constructive work by writing, "These studies do not fit into the study of morality where you think it does, it fits over here," and describing how this research can actually be used.

Note: I will not get to Harris for a while. I cover two presentations each weekend. It will be a couple of months, at that rate, before I get to Sam Harris' presentation. Then, I will have more to say when I write about the pannel discussion that followed (that Sam Harris participated in).