How Andreas accidentally undermined scientific arguments for moral principles by dissing Kanye West

How Andreas accidentally undermined scientific arguments for moral principles by dissing Kanye West October 27, 2014

Yesterday, I finished my time working at the North Carolina State Fair. My lab set up our department’s mobile research center, and I spent about 100 hours over the last 10 days administering surveys to three or four thousand people in exchange for enough money to make a small dent in the North Carolina GDP. I mention this not only to explain where I’ve been for the last week and a few days, but also to preempt any suggestions that the argument I’m about to make comes from a place of not caring about or properly respecting science.

A portrait of the blogger as a young science carney.
A portrait of the blogger as a young science carney.

In fact, I care about science so much that I can’t stand to do two things: like the “I Fucking Love Science” Facebook page or pretend that science can answer questions it can’t. This latter problem seems unfortunately pervasive in some atheist circles.

Be it the existence of free will, the status of moral truths, or whether theism and evolution are compatible, many atheists in recent years have been overextended their enthusiasm for science beyond where it can justifiably go. More often than not, arguments of these kinds tend to rely on shoddy premises and shoddier philosophical reasoning, a sentiment captured well by Daniel Dennett in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, where he said that “there is no such thing as a philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”

Andreas, who took over the blog while I was gone, lampooned this line of thinking when he posted his fantastic playlist this past weekend. He explains his choice to include the Cunninlynguist’s track, “Lynguistics:”

When it comes to lyrical acrobatics, Kanye West has nothing on Kentucky-based Cunninlynguists. (Don’t even try to dispute this, Vlad and Stephen. It’s science.) When coder and hip-hop enthusiast Matt Daniels did an analysis of the first 35,000 words recorded by 85 separate hip hop acts, Cunninlynguists clocked in at an impressive 5,971 unique words. Compare that to Moby-Dick (the novel), at 6,022; Shakespeare, at 5,170; and Kanye, at 3,982.

Putting the fighting words about Kanye aside (regular readers might know that Stephen and I really love Kanye), Andreas’s conclusion (“It’s science.”) doesn’t exactly come from a scientific place, and that’s the point. Sure, science can very well tell us about the first 35,000 words recorded by 85 separate hip hop acts are, but science is completely silent on whether or why we should even care. No experiments show that this captures what we’re interested in when it comes to lyrical acrobatics, or even that lyrical acrobatics matter as a way to evaluate hip hop to begin with.

I might be treating this topic way too seriously and ruining Andreas’s joke, but it’s illustrative of a common problem.

In The Moral LandscapeSam Harris makes this exact mistake, arguing that science provides the same kind of knowledge for moral questions that it does for chemistry and physics. Roughly, he argues that the only sensible thing we can value is the wellbeing of conscious creatures, and since we can learn about what increases and decreases the wellbeing of conscious creatures through science, science can determine right and wrong.

Notice, though, that this all hinges at it’s first joint—the only thing we can sensibly value is the wellbeing of conscious creatures. It’s worth noting, though, that science plays absolutely no role at all here. No hypotheses were tested nor data collected to lead us to this conclusion.

Even more, fields like philosophy and religion have been very sensibly debating what we ought to value for thousands of years. I could very well argue that I only value the wellbeing of others insofar as it impacts my wellbeing, so the only sensible thing I can value is my own wellbeing. I could also point out that the distribution of wellbeing is itself extremely important and distinct from the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Can’t I sensibly value that?[1. To illustrate this point, I can value money while being indifferent to the distribution of money and vice versa. If I only value money, I should be just as happy if four of my friends made $40K in a year as I would be if one friend made $100K and the other three made $20K. If I valued the distribution of money more than money itself, I might prefer a world where my friends all make $30K over a world where three make $20K and one makes $100K, even though there’s less overall money ($120K vs. $160K). What matters, then, is how the money is shared.]

To focus on this last example, Sam Harris tries to account for concerns about fairness and equality by saying they impact the wellbeing of conscious creatures, so it’s still about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. We can offset the impact inequality has on wellbeing, though, and still run into problems. Does an inequitable distribution of income make the middle class unhappy? It seems like making an equitable society and throwing a sufficient number of parties for the rich should occupy equivalent positions on the moral landscape, but one is clearly morally better than the other. A quick skim of the grim-sounding literature that surrounds problems like “the utility monster” or “the repugnant conclusion” is all that’s really required to illustrate how necessary it is to have values that extend beyond “the wellbeing of conscious creatures.”

I’ve gone on a bit of a digression, but I hope I’ve made it clear how far we’ve strayed from science—at the critical step in Harris’s argument, the conclusion hinges entirely on philosophical arguments we’ve been disagreeing about for as long as we have been thinking about these questions. It’s hard to see, then, how we’ve made any progress on these questions at all. Like Andreas justifying his subjective preference for the Cunninlynguist, Harris wants his conclusion to carry the weight and importance of a scientific fact without having any of the groundwork that makes science relevant and valuable to begin with.

Science isn’t enough to do something as trivial as rank hip hop artists; why should we expect it to do any better at our deepest moral questions?

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