Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
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Ben
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Post by Ben » Thu May 06, 2010 6:28 am

Hi Pannapetar
Pannapetar wrote: But let me suggest an experiment. We both go to our local university's library, psychology department. There we try to assess the number of books on well-being and compare it to the number of books on a mainstream topic such as cognitive psychology and to the number of books on an esoteric subject such as transpersonal psychology. Where would you expect the numbers to come in? You could also quickly check the Wikipedia list of disciplines in psychology or the index of psychology topics. I don't even find "well-being" or "happiness" in there, but I do find transpersonal psychology. What does this suggest?
Having had some experience working in libraries, including university libraries, your proposed experiment above is meaningless, There are a lot of factors that impact collection development, least of which is whether a particular subject is deemed "mainstream" or "esoteric". Furthermore, the current peer-reviewed literature generally doesn't appear in monograph form for a number of years. It appears in journals, and increasingly, e-journals.
I can go on and on, but its not important and incidental.

So I think this is a good point to request that everyone return to the topic
Thanks for your cooperation

Ben
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Pannapetar
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Post by Pannapetar » Thu May 06, 2010 7:55 am

Ben wrote:Furthermore, the current peer-reviewed literature generally doesn't appear in monograph form for a number of years. It appears in journals, and increasingly, e-journals.
Does it matter at all? For all I care, you can take the number of published articles in psychology journals referring to the said topics and the numerical results would still produce the same conclusion: that it isn't mainstream. And even if there was something close to a science of happiness (perhaps based on clever psychometrics), what would that imply for our question: can science answer moral questions? After all, morality is primarily concerned with right and wrong (or good and evil) and only indirectly with well-being. Now, as Buddhists we might give special importance to happiness (as opposed to suffering), which perhaps implies an eudaimonic leaning in ethics, but there is absolutely no consensus on this. Some might view salvation as more important, others might argue in favour of pleasure maximisation, some in favour of the greatest common good, and again others might argue in favour of certain virtues. What criteria should be applied? What exactly should be quantified? Are these questions that science can answer? Absolutely not.

Cheers, Thomas

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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Post by Shonin » Thu May 06, 2010 8:03 am

Well said.

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Nibbida
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Post by Nibbida » Thu May 06, 2010 4:46 pm

Pannapetar wrote:
Nibbida wrote:You may disagree with the undertaking and even have legitimate concerns with it. So be it. All the better, in fact. But to dismiss it as fringe or treat it as if it didn't exist is inaccurate.
I'm not keen to delve into this much deeper, because it seems tangential to the thread topic. But let me suggest an experiment. We both go to our local university's library, psychology department. There we try to assess the number of books on well-being and compare it to the number of books on a mainstream topic such as cognitive psychology and to the number of books on an esoteric subject such as transpersonal psychology. Where would you expect the numbers to come in? You could also quickly check the Wikipedia list of disciplines in psychology or the index of psychology topics. I don't even find "well-being" or "happiness" in there, but I do find transpersonal psychology. What does this suggest?

It suggests that you are looking for the wrong thing and in the wrong places. Checking wikipedia and libraries isn't going to give you an accurate picture of what's happening in a field. Psychology has spent decades obsessively cataloging everything that's wrong and sick about people. Scientific research on well-being is relatively newer, and calling it "well-being" research is even newer. You seem to be making conclusions about things that you are not well informed about.

In any case, the number of books printed on a topic does not indicate whether an approach is useful, important, or scientific.

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Pannapetar
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Re: Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Post by Pannapetar » Fri May 07, 2010 1:25 am

Nibbida,

You are probably right about me not being well-informed about recent developments in psychology. My freshman prep course in psychology dates back more than 20 years now and I chose an engineering career afterwards. However, I just noticed we have both overlooked that the Wikipedia list contains an entry named "positive psychology". The well-being research that was mentioned previously is grouped under that term.

Still, I wonder how relevant this is to Sam Harris' talk. I'd say it is probably not very relevant. I'd rather like to hear what you and others think about the question whether science can answer moral questions.

Cheers, Thomas

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