Friday, February 11, 2011

Ever Change Your Mind?

I don't mean deciding maybe you want chicken instead of beef for dinner. I mean something more fundamental. A belief about what's real and what isn't. Like you can't deny any longer that evolution really is the best explanation for the diversity of life on Earth, or that the planet really is warming and humans have something to do with it. I've blogged before on the subject, identifying some major flip-flops in my own thinking over the years. All of those flip-flops were flip-flops in my judgment of the best strategy to deal with certain facts. Kind of like, when faced with a charging bear, changing my mind whether I should play dead or run like hell. None of my flip-flops were changes in my belief in the facts underpinning my beliefs. The bear is still a bear in any case.

After the jump, some recent readings on what it might take to change my mind about some fundamental facts.

First, I think we should all confess that we often believe things for subjective reasons below our level of consciousness. And those beliefs are subject to change without us even being aware of it. In an article in Science+Religion Today, Jane Risen reports an intriguing finding about people's belief in global warming. It turns out that if you survey people in a warm setting (out in a hot sun or in an overheated room), they are more likely to say they believe in global warming than people who are surveyed in a cooler place. So, who knows, maybe another week of this crazy winter weather might cause me to start doubting global warming.

But probably not, because my belief in the scientific method seems to be just as rock solid as, say, some people's belief in the literal truth of Genesis. That's not to say that my beliefs about the fundamental facts of the universe are unchangeable, only that I can't imagine changing the thought process I use to decide such facts. I just can't.

For example, recent scientific research into the origin of the universe is certainly causing my beliefs about the Big Bang to change. That's because the research is discovering new facts and new theories to explain those facts. Science is behind it. It's the scientific method at work. For other people, I can imagine their own beliefs about the Big Bang could change in response to hearing a sermon in church that reinterprets Scripture in a way that a devoutly religious person finds convincing.

That brings me to a fascinating intersection of science and religion -- the study of morality. For the most part, science and religion have settled on an uneasy truce concerning the boundary between the two. Religion has (slowly) made peace with science on subjects like the solar system and evolution. And science has politely agreed not to weigh in on subjects like morality. Until now, that is.

Sam Harris has written a provocative book, The Moral Landscape, in which he asserts that science is a better tool than religion to answer questions regarding human values. He compares morality to health care, saying that just as science has supplanted religion in matters of human health, science can also better answer questions about the well-being of conscious creatures, which he asserts is what morality is all about. Critics scoff that science can only answer what "is" not what "ought" to be. Harris retorts that by that measure, no branch of science can be justified; indeed science itself would be unjustifiable:

"It would be impossible to prove that our definition of science is correct, because our standards of proof will be built into any proof we would offer. What evidence could prove that we should value evidence? What logic could demonstrate the importance of logic?"
-- Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape

The 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill understood this dilemma, using health care as his example.

"Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof. The medical art is proved to be good, by its conducing to health; but how is it possible to prove that health is good?"
-- John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

I believe Sam Harris is willing to concede this point, but argues that just because the fundamental values in morality, in health care, in science itself, cannot be proven, that is not sufficient reason to exclude science from investigating morality in an empirical manner.

Will Sam Harris cause me to flip-flop on any fundamental beliefs? Perhaps he already has. Before, I probably would have classified myself as a moral relativist, conceding that different cultural practices should be respected, even in cases where I personally might find them repugnant. I might personally object to some of those practices (e.g, the forced wearing of burqas) but I wouldn't be very confident in the rational argument for why my belief is better than others. After reading The Moral Landscape, I now probably would classify myself as a moral realist, accepting that some practices are absolutely or universally wrong, whether or not they are common in other cultures (e.g. genital mutilation of girls). Why? Because some practices are clearly inconsistent with maximizing human well-being.

Even if I still can't prove that human well-being is itself good.

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