Steven Pinker – The Great Debate: Can Science Tell us Right From Wrong? (2)

The Great Debate On November 6th, 2010 a panel of renowned scientists, philosophers, and public intellectuals gathered to discuss what impact evolutionary theory and advances in neuroscience might have on traditional concepts of morality. If human morality is an evolutionary adaptation and if neuroscientists can identify specific brain circuitry governing moral judgment, can scientists determine what is, in fact, right and wrong? The panelists were psychologist Steven Pinker, author Sam Harris, philosopher Patricia Churchland, physicist Lawrence Krauss, philosopher Simon Blackburn, bioethicist Peter Singer and The Science Network’s Roger Bingham. Recorded live at the Arizona State University Gammage auditorium. “The Great Debate” was sponsored by the ASU Origins Project in collaboration with the ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law Center for Law, Science and Innovation; the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge; and The Science Network. —– Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard. His research is on visual cognition and the psychology of language. Among his books are “The Language Instinct,” “How the Mind Works” and “The Blank Slate.” He has been named Humanist of the Year, and is listed in Foreign Policy and Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and in Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” His latest book is “The Stuff of Thought
Video Rating: 4 / 5


25 Comments so far »

  1. weefeatures said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    @ZachRose88 I applaud your comment!

  2. Typho0n86 said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    yeah good definition on science, :D

  3. sexyloser said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    @GoodbeyonDevil Unfortunately, Pinker doesn’t give public lectures or debates as often as some of the other panelists, but I agree that he is a great speaker.

  4. no1hoopsman said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 5:39 pm

    I noticed the part about the historic treatment of prisoners and bad people; yet today, our civilised society condones torture and “throwing ovens at people”

  5. ZachRose88 said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

    Stop clapping and let the man speak.

  6. YAMAstudios said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

    @Gnomefro Well it was my starting point, mostly the NT and certain books from the OT, whether I liked it or not. Now I don’t think my school teachers ever had me read about burning priest daugthers who have sex before marriage or anything equally abominable and that’s because this is the 21st century and that was something BC. It was as wrong then as it is now and such wrongs are obvious to anyone with the most basic inherent moral compass. That’s not to say though that all the bible is wrong…

  7. YAMAstudios said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

    @Gnomefro Now whether you want your children raised on religious teachings or non-religious ethical texts that is up to the parents. Mostly parents will opt for neither and give their children a basic understanding of right and wrong as they see it even if they’re not always sure themselves which is which. From my Christian beginnings I have gone on to study a diverse range of philosophy and ethics and I think having knowledge of both worlds is invaluable to my continuous moral education……

  8. YAMAstudios said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 8:22 pm

    @Gnomefro Now I don’t know about you but if someone had put some Aristotle or some Kant or god forbid, some Wittgenstein in front of me (hell even the very accessible Peter Vardy) when I was 6 or 7 and just beginning to discern right and wrong in any substantial way I’d probably have just gone back to my colouring book in either boredom, confusion or both. Stories about Jesus and his parables are sound, accessible moral lessons that even children can understand and so make good starting points.

  9. YAMAstudios said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

    @Gnomefro A lot of the moral teachings within the OT certainly used the fear of God’s retribution and judgment as justification but within the NT Jesus sees virtues as having value in themselves rather than being arbitrarily dictated by authority. I’m no expert on the Bible and I believe it is a flawed imperfect text but considering how positively it has effected so many lives through the centuries what merit it does possess should not be ignored whilst only it’s shortcomings are brought up.

  10. Gnomefro said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

    @YAMAstudios At the same time, everything that’s said in the New Testament on morality is worthless because of the justification it gives : Behave like the bible says, otherwise you’ll be tortured forever by an all loving and mysterious creature. This justification ignores the human interests and empirical facts they discuss in this debate. Those facts are what morality is about. The bible completely misses this point even in its high points.

    Discarding the bible can only improve things.

  11. Gnomefro said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

    @YAMAstudios “Use it as a starting point and work from there.”

    Why on earth would you pick a starting point that is so thoroughly disgusting? ANY modern work on ethics will be bette rby leaps and bounds. Seriously… “don’t discard it because it got ‘some’ things wrong”? That manual of murder orders the Jews to burn priest daughters who have sex before marriage(Lev 21:9) This isn’t just wrong – it’s blatantly satanic.

  12. YAMAstudios said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

    @Gnoo Well it’s a universal truth so I’ wouldn’t be surprised if someone already beat the bible to the punch. Still , that doesn’t detract from it’s merit or value and if the scripture gets the message across to more people I’m all for it. However I’m not all for any of the things you listed and whilst I don’t doubt the bible, archaic as it can be, contains said things that doesn’t mean discarding it totally because it got some things wrong. Use it as a starting point and work from there.

  13. Gnoo said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 11:03 pm

    @YAMAstudios That edict was voice hundreds of years before the bible. Also the bible/scripture tells you to keep slaves and kill gay people, children that talk back to you and those women who aren’t virgins on their wedding night…. Best to come to these conslusions through logical thought.

  14. YAMAstudios said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

    “cruel punishments were eliminated not by appeal to religious scriptures” but via reason.

    “Each of us objects to our own suffering, if suffering is bad for me how can I say suffering is ok for someone else just because there them and I’m me. If suffering is bad for everyone, you can’t coherently maintain that only my suffering counts””

    But it’s funny because I’m sure I heard something similar in scripture, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Funny that.

  15. MelonNun said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

    (facepalm) SCIENCE cannot tell us right from wrong given the nature of its normative epistemology.

  16. CadaverSplatter said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 11:22 pm

    Sam Harris is the dunce of the group.

  17. revelwoodie said,

    Wrote on November 25, 2011 @ 11:42 pm

    Lol – right after I posted that comment, he ceded my point. “Well, if you want to think of social sciences as honorary sciences, then yeah, sure, I agree science can discover moral value.” Yes, Steven, they are sciences, and not “honorary” ones. In any case, that certainly is what Sam means by science, so agreeing on terms, you agree with him.

  18. revelwoodie said,

    Wrote on November 26, 2011 @ 12:35 am

    @MrDarkbloom Agreed. I think Steven’s problem here is what I hear a lot of people saying on this topic. They think that what we mean by a science of morality is scanning people’s brains or something. Sure, neuroscience is part of it. But so is economics, sociology, criminology, etc. Sciences all. Steven clearly is missing that point, since he demonstrated that his own moral argument was NOT scientific by pointing out it was first advanced by an economist. Very smart guy, but DUH!

  19. muel0341 said,

    Wrote on November 26, 2011 @ 12:44 am

    Pinker is badly mistaken. The “knock-down” argument he is quoting is from Plato’s Euthyphro. It is commonly known as the “Euthyphro Dilemma” and it has been refuted. The dilemma is states as a question: is good ness good because it is commanded by God, or is God good because he commands goodness. Pinker is saying that Religion couldn’t possibly be the basis for right and wrong because God can’t make bad things right just by his authority. This is known as a false dilemma…

  20. annata12 said,

    Wrote on November 26, 2011 @ 1:41 am

    I think Pinker an Harris just define science differently

  21. Nerd042 said,

    Wrote on November 26, 2011 @ 2:02 am

    It’s all about potential suffering.

  22. MrDarkbloom said,

    Wrote on November 26, 2011 @ 2:25 am

    @Naturalist1979 “scientifically informed reason can tell us right from wrong” – personally I think your distinction is not worth arguing about. We’re are obviously both on the same team and, frankly I think there are more important points to make.

  23. Naturalist1979 said,

    Wrote on November 26, 2011 @ 2:45 am

    @MrDarkbloom There is an obvious one: science brings facts, not norms. Ethics deals with norms. We, as rational beings, are the judges of what facts counts as “flourishing” of “happiness” or “valuable” or “worthwhile” or “justice”. Now, there are a lot of facts that are forcefully inidicative of e.g. happiness, but a validation of critical reason will always be necessary. He should stick to: “scientifically informed reason can tell us right from wrong”.

  24. Itsrothytime said,

    Wrote on November 26, 2011 @ 3:34 am

    @MrDarkbloom I completely agree with you but I believe you have missed the point entirely. My point is that science is not the sum of all rational inquiry as Harris presupposes. Rather, it is one method of rational inquiry into the nature of the universe. Unlike Harris, I do believe that there is a meaningful, though not always clear, distinction between science and other methods of rational inquiry such as philosophy, economics, history, etc. Pinker sees this distinction.

  25. MrDarkbloom said,

    Wrote on November 26, 2011 @ 4:33 am

    I like Pinker very much, but I like Sam Harris more.

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