The term ‘scientism’ is often used to describe an ideological stance that transforms a modernist take on the scientific method into an all-encompassing world-view, which is then held to be more ‘rational’, ‘objective’, and just plain better, than any other. In stark contrast, post-modernism is a world-view that rejects the modernist principles of objectivity, individual rationality, and universalism in favour of a more relativist, anti-imperialist mind-set. However, in a world with increasingly diverse and seemingly disjointed world-views, how can one avoid becoming either a condescending imperialist or a nihilistic relativist? The answer depends on how one understands the relationship between facts and values. To one extreme, scientists like Sam Harris endeavour to break down the barrier between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’, between facts and values, by using science and ‘objective’ research on the brain. To the other extreme, philosophers such as Kwame Anthony Appiah argue that it is impossible to discern whether facts engender values, or values engender facts, since facts are part of a transient world-view belonging to a ‘Western Enlightenment’ tradition. Somewhere between objective Truth and negation of truth, it seems that science can affect individual values whilst already being informed by those same values, and that caution must be employed when simple theories are presented to explain away complex processes.
Although many scientists adhere to a modernist interpretation of science as objective fact-finding, few argue as earnestly in favour of scientism as Sam Harris. Hailing from the field of neuroscience, Harris argues not only that the barrier between facts and values can be broken down but that it should be. Facts are the foundation for one set of universally-applicable values that underlie all forms of human flourishing, regardless of era, culture, gender, sexual orientation, or creed. He further posits that these superior values can be derived from observing patterns of blood-flow in the brain. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery (fMRI) scans, along with other methods to measure the presence of oxygen, glucose and electrical activity in the brain, can tell us what fundamental values are needed in order to maximize well-being and human flourishing. In this stance, well-being is measured by conscious reactions, and facts are perceived as the basis for finding an optimal ethical code. Beyond this, Harris posits that moral relativism, which he often confuses with cultural relativism, is a humble but dishonest way in which scholars have dealt with an imperial and colonial past. Despite his appreciation and defence in favour of scientism, Harris does not adhere to the scientific method in order to prove his point. More importantly, his ‘solutions’ still beg the same questions that have been posed by philosophers for centuries. Therefore, it seems that the natural sciences are no closer than philosophy in answering such questions on morality and ethics.
It is difficult to intellectually engage Harris’s argument as his definition of well-being is not clearly stated, despite the fact that this is the lynchpin of his argument. The methods that he proposes to measure the superior value of certain ethical codes are either non-existent, or are based on observations of secondary reactions, which are then interpreted through value-laden theories. fMRI scans allow observation of blood flow in regions of the brain when stimulated in different ways. This is believed to prove that certain physical parts of the brain are responsible for different traits observed in humans, such as morality, psychopathy, or depression. However, these are assumptions based on conjecture, since these observations do not prove whether physical brain activity is a cause or a manifestation. Sam Harris is a modernist in the sense that he strongly holds to the belief that objective facts can be obtained, and he is a positivist in the sense that he believe in the existence of one objective reality. With this in mind, Harris believes that facts and values are distinct but that they should not be seen as separate since facts inform ethics and morality. There are two nuanced arguments, which at the same time agree and disagree with Harris’s understanding of the relationship between facts and values.
The first strand of arguments posits that facts and values are two distinct things, but unlike Harris, that these should remain in non-overlapping fields: one field to describe an event and one field to judge an event. The father of Western forms of philosophical scepticism, David Hume, posited that facts are derived from rational thought, whilst morals are not. Morals are acted upon because they ‘excite the passions’, not because they are rationalized through observable facts, and thus are distinct from processes of rationality or objective observation. Other Western ‘fathers’ of sociology and philosophy, Weber and Popper, argue against a logical positivism that rejects all metaphysics in favour of a materialistic world-view based on notions of objective Truth. However, Weber argues that facts and values should be separated but that values do inform the search for factual truth. Scientists enter their profession because of values that awaken their passions. They then embark on a mission to rid themselves of subjective values in order to maintain the objectivity required by their profession. Weber thus understands the complex relationship between facts and values, but remains stuck in a more modernist interpretation of ‘objectivity’. Philosopher Jeff McMahan broaches the topic in a similar manner. Facts and values are distinct, for an objective fact cannot tell us what to value. With a focus on bioethics, McMahan uses the example of ‘living’ versus ‘existence’. Objective facts can determine whether an organism exists, but not when it begins or ceases to live. The problem with this reflection is that facts are still perceived as containing some form of objective truth. Hume, Popper, Weber, and McMahan do not adhere to a most post-modern approach and as such they fail to account for the complex relationship between facts and values. Harris may be a rare case in defending the basis of values in factual data, but he is not alone in believing that the barrier between facts and values can and should be abolished.
Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that the barrier between facts and values is either very blurry or absent. Facts and values exist in a symbiotic relationship, as both affect each other and are inseparable. As such, values affect our interpretation and adherence to facts, and facts affect our personal moral codes and ethical systems. Appiah is certainly not agreeing with Harris on the infallibility of scientific research, or that objective facts can prove the superiority of certain said values, but he does argue that it is almost impossible to distinguish the two, albeit not in the sense Harris claims. Post-modern psychologist Kenneth Gergen explains this stance. The very idea of an objective fact exists within a specific world-view and is therefore saturated with value-judgements. As a more extreme relativist, Gergen poses that science could determine values for someone adhering to a form of scientism, but refutes the idea that science can determine superior universal values based on objective facts. Economist and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues along similar lines. He forwards that the world is a lot more random than we let ourselves believe, and we ignore this in order to make sense of our lives. As humans, we naturally reduce, narrate and render explicable the inexplicable. In our frenzy of explanations and comforting conclusions, we forget that those elusive ‘black swans’ exist. For Taleb, facts and certainty are illusions, therefore there is no barrier between facts and values because facts are values. Paraphrasing Taleb, humans ‘platonify’ in the sense that we expect only one perfect solution, archetype, system or model to exist at any one time. In fact, he posits that many different ‘perfects’ exist to suit different situations, people, events, and so on. Although none of the above pundits agree with Harris’s proposal of universal values, or that facts inform superior values, they do similarly oppose the simplistic notion of ‘facts’ on one side of the fence, and ‘values’ on the other. The relationship between the two is far more complex than modernist intellectuals would have us believe.
Relativism can be weak position, but adopting a middle-of-the-road stance on questions of morality is not synonymous with moral relativism. As Appiah points out, many different ways are available to interpret the world and humans call upon most or all of them at different points in time and circumstance. Some of these values knit us together as human beings, and others are culture, person and time-specific. Post-modernism refreshingly accounts for models asides those based on linear progress. It is tempting to try and force the complexity and uncertainty of human life into comforting theories and systems. However, the formulation of one explanation, one neat theory that encompasses the entirety of human experience, is rejected by the very presence of divergent world-views and the existence of countless explanations and conclusions about how people should live their lives. Somewhere between Taleb and Appiah lies a position that shamelessly accepts a middle-of-the-road approach. Conclusions that claim to provide absolute certainty do a disservice to humanity by ignoring ‘black swans’, and theories that endeavour to globalize specific cultural intellectual traditions overlook the complexity of human existence. As Taleb forwards, it seems to be a pervasive human trait to try and reduce the world into simple solutions, however, it seems more appropriate to strive for a more honest outlook reflective of the diversity and uncertainty that so defines our world.
- Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Experiments in Ethics. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2008.
- Gergen, Kenneth. “Psychological Science in a Post-Modern Context” in The American Psychologist. American Psychological Association, 56, 803-813. 2001.
- Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press, 2010.
- McMahan, Jeff. The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Popper, Karl. “Truth, Rationality, and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge,” in Conjectures and Refutations. Routledge Classics: New York, 2002. pp 291-335.
- Talib, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007.
- Weber, Max. “Science as a Vocation.” Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.