Pragmatism and Scientific Realism: Two Great Tastes!
April 26, 2011

“This right here is some @resnikoff linkbait,” tweets young Dylan Matthews, and he is not wrong. The linkbait he refers to is a post over at his own (all too infrequently updated) blog arguing that Sam Harris is trying to have it both ways with his insistence that science can answer basic moral questions.

Dylan writes:

While there are a number of different philosophies of science and epistemologies that can accommodate the scientific method, Harris is certainly correct that you have to accept one of them for the whole thing to work. Harris’ choice appears to be scientific realism, which, in short, is the view that science describes a world that is really “out there”, and that a scientific observation is true when it corresponds to this real world.

Which is funny to me, because Harris is a utilitarian. At least that’s what I and Orr make of his conclusion that the good is the “well-being of conscious creatures”. A quick scan of the book shows that Harris explicitly identifies identifies as a consequentialist (see page 62; sadly there’s no Google Books preview I can link to). Consequentialism + a hedonic conception of the good = good old fashioned utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism, unlike some other ethical theories, has philosophical implications outside of ethics. In particular, I think it commits you to some form of pragmatism. If the answer to “what should I do?” is “whatever action maximizes the general happiness” then the answer to “what should I believe?” is “whatever belief is conducive to maximizing the general happiness”. That starts to look a lot like pragmatists’ argument that what is true is what is most useful to believe.


So Harris has a problem. He can be a scientific realist, which rules out both pragmatism (which rejects the idea that there needs to be a real world “out there” which true statements reflect) and utilitarianism (because it implies pragmatism). Or he can be a utilitarian, and a pragmatist, and acknowledge that religion is often a source for good in the world and a source of joy for many privately. But you can’t be a utilitarian and a scientific realist, and you certainly can’t try to get to utilitarianism through scientific realism, which is what he’s trying to do now.

I’m not sure that’s exactly right. I get the sense that philosopher Neil Sinhababu’s pleasure-based hedonic utilitarianism is consistent with scientific realism, at least if you think Sinhababu’s claims about the objective goodness of hedonic pleasure hold up. (Incidentally, Neil, if you’re reading this I’d love to get your take.)

But while I don’t believe Dylan has scored a hit, I think y’all already know I find Harris’ theory to be deeply ill-conceived. I encourage you to read the excellent essay that inspired Dylan’s post to find out why.

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