Science and morality


in Books and literature, Geek stuff, Politics, Science, Writing

I encourage readers to pick up a copy of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. A friend and I are already reading it, with the intention of discussing it, and my preliminary experience suggests that it will provide good fodder for discussion.

Harris argues that what is good and what is bad ultimately depends on the experiences of conscious beings. Since science can illuminate what those experiences are like and what triggers them, science can speak on moral questions.

Harris also questions the moral authority accorded to religions. Just as religions teach deeply misleading things about the physical nature of the universe (such as that it is 6,000 years old, was created in six days, and contains unchanging species), they arguably teach deeply misleading things about morality, since their prescriptions fail to encourage the well being of conscious beings.

Rather than leap into discussion of these ideas now, I encourage readers to buy or borrow the book. It will be more interesting to discuss on the basis of all of its contents, rather than on the basis of my brief comments on some of the early pages combined with the pre-existing beliefs of myself and readers.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

. December 19, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Neuropsychology and Mythology of Motivation for Group Aggression

The individual inhabits a network of meaning, intrapsychic and social, whose intact functioning regulates emotion. Threats to the stability of this network — to its axioms — provoke aggressive responding. The probability of such aggression is increased, when the network so inhabited is anachronistic and rigid. Individuals who self-admittedly flee from their moral responsibilities doom their networks of meaning to such anachronism and rigidity. In this manner they come necessarily to serve a master whose nature they do not understand.

Milan December 20, 2010 at 11:11 pm

I have a tonne of things to say about the Harris book, but I have been insanely busy during the last few days and I haven’t been able to write my review or put up the comments I have been meaning to.

It will only be worse for me between now and the 27th, as I am taking the bus from Ottawa to Toronto to Hamilton to Toronto to Albany and then coming back from Albany to Ottawa.

Tristan December 21, 2010 at 12:55 am

I will write some posts on Harris’ book. I think that rather than posts which attempt to respond to the entire book (which isn’t terribly unified anyway), posts or short essays on individual aspects or parts of the book will be most conducive to clear thought and centred discussion.

BuddyRich December 21, 2010 at 7:04 am

We’ll you have about 10 hours if not longer on the bus. IIRC you ended up getting an iPhone 3G, right? You could always write a post with it in that time if not a full laptop a few buses offer wifi (or you could tether) though the bus is always hit or miss to use a laptop on, depends on capacity.

I’ve been slowly reading the book as well but the season has caught up and I am not out of chapter 2 yet.

I will say that although he has made some salient points so far, his premise in the introduction depends on his assumptions made therein, which are disputable but he assumes they are fact and of course the rest of his theory is based upon that foundation. Not that I disagree with him entirely but in a round about way he weaves his way around the debate and “assumes” it away. At least IMO.

Milan December 21, 2010 at 7:43 am

My Nokia E71 is terrible for blogging. It is terribly buggy, finicky, and awkward.

At the moment, it cannot seem to login to sites requiring cookies at all.

BuddyRich December 21, 2010 at 1:00 pm

My mistake, i thought after the 1st one broke you got a used 3G.

Certainly when its time to replace that take a long look at an unlocked iphone from the apple store. it is well worth it though pricey. or the nexus one or an unlocked android phone. very good devices.

Tristan December 21, 2010 at 3:33 pm

This is not a recommendation, but a question. I think there are probably people reading this who are already experts on these issues.

Is it currently legal in Canada to unlock iphones? Does that apply only to the Iphone 4, or also to the 3g, 3gs, and earlier phones?

Is it difficult to get a plan for an older unlocked iphone? Are these phones relatively inexpensive?

I’m asking because it struck me that an old iphone might be that the best smart phone value right now. I’d certainly like an iphone if it were cheap enough that I wasn’t terribly worried about breaking it.

Milan December 22, 2010 at 2:22 pm

It is legal to unlock a phone you own in Canada (though it may cease to be if a copyright act of the sort tabled recently in Parliament actually gets passed).

That said, Apple does routinely sabotage unlocked iPhones.

Matt December 22, 2010 at 5:07 pm


Unlocking (allowing different carriers to be used) and jailbreaking (allowing root access) of iPhones (and any phone you own) is legal as Milan said.

Apple is in a constant cat and mouse game of patching firmwares (basically iOS versions) and basebands (a seperate bit of firmware that runs the radio) in the iPhone. As of the date of this writing, I believe that all iPhone firmwares can be jailbroken and there is an unlocking solution for all basebands.

Jailbreaking the iOS hasn’t yet been an issue, but every time a new baseband is released it poses significant problems to the unlocking community. For this reason, if you own an iPhone and you want to upgrade the iOS, it’s best not to do it through itunes, but rather with something like the pwnage tool. This prevents itunes from updating the baseband thus allowing previous unlocking techniques to work. As an aside, unlocking requires that the phone first be jailbroken.

iPhone 3Gs (not iPhone 3GSs) can indeed be had fairly cheaply. They aren’t particularly fast, but they’re still a nice device. I have one, but switched to a Nexus One when I switched providers. I still occasionally use the iPhone because Tomtom is on it.

Another note is about frequencies. All iPhone 3G and 3Gs so far support 850/900/1800/1900MHz GSM, and 850/1900/2100MHz 3G frequencies which allow them to work on Rogers/Fido 2G and 3G and Bell and Telus 3G. They will NOT work on Wind or Mobilicity 3G due to these carriers operating on the 1700MHz AWS band.

Milan December 22, 2010 at 6:06 pm

How do the batteries in iPhones hold up? The original battery for my E71 now only gets a small fraction of its original life. At least, unlike with an iPhone, it is physically easy to replace.

Matt December 22, 2010 at 6:21 pm

iPhone batteries hold up in the same manner as all Li-ion batteries: not that well. Having said that, I’ve found with mine I’m charging the thing every night anyway. Even with degraded performance it will usually last the day unless being used heavily.

With all my smartphones I’ve found that playing games or doing heavy browsing will require the phone to be charged before the day is through.

Tristan December 22, 2010 at 10:17 pm


Thanks for the comprehensive advice. A used iphone wouldn’t be the cheapest option, but having an ipod touch I can’t really fathom the idea of buying a smartphone that isn’t an apple.

Milan December 22, 2010 at 11:04 pm

As mentioned on the two threads focused on smartphones – one, two – there are some distinct advantages to non-Apple offerings.

For me, having a physical keyboard is key. I hate the on-screen iPhone option. Also, I like being able to download apps without depending on the approval of Apple’s megalomaniac CEO.

Tristan December 23, 2010 at 12:33 am

As I’ve learned from my Samsung slider – having a physical keyboard isn’t always great. It’s possible to make a physical keyboard which is uncannily difficult to use. I’d suggest to anyone – never assume a phone’s physical keyboard will be as good as physical keyboard phones you’ve used in the past. Emily and I’s phones are superficially similar, but her physical keyboard is a thousand percent more usable.

Milan December 24, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Despite its many substantial software flaws, the Nokia E71 has a very good keyboard – better than those on the BlackBerries I have used.

. January 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm
. February 21, 2011 at 10:55 pm

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