jump to navigation

Of Facts and Values May 7, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , , ,

Over at Eric MacDonald’s blog Choice in Dying, there is a discussion about Sam Harris’ book the Moral Landscape (of which I published some early thoughts previously).

Now, I did have some issues with Harris’s book, but they are minor.  I feel like many people are not understanding what Harris’ point is.  Now, it is quite possible that I am reading my own thoughts in Harris’ words, but in any case I want to discuss some of my own thoughts about this issue, as I have been talking with Eric in the comments of the post linked to above.  Now, my thinking about this goes back long before Sam Harris’ book.  Upon finding Hilary Putnam’s book The Collapse of the Fact Value Dichotomy, I found an expression of thoughts I have had most of my philosophical life.  Thus, when I read Harris’ book, I felt at home, not challenged.  His starting points seemed to be my starting points in thinking about things like science, facts, values, and morality.  And so I want to take a first stab at articulating my own thoughts here.  Just remember that this will be a sort of public rough draft, and I will welcome any criticism and comments.  Also, at any point where I seem to be talking for Sam Harris, I recognize I may be at odds with his opinion.


What is a fact? If I am to define what the relationships between facts and values are, I ought to make sure I define my terms.  I’ll give a bit of a nod to Wittgenstein when I say that a fact is something that is the case.  In other words, a fact is something that is  true about the state of real things.  The cat is on the chair is a fact, iff in the real world there is an observable feline upon a piece of furniture designed for sitting upon, which is similarly observable, and their orientation is consistent with the use of “on” with the cat being the subject and the chair being the object.  A fact is a real state of the world.

What is a value?  This is slightly more difficult because this word has many uses, including in math and color.  In this sense, I am using it to mean an ideal or principle accepted by an individual or group.  It can be a goal, but more often than not it is a motivation, a preference, or a purpose towards some goal.  When I asked Ginny what she thought, she came up with “what people should want.”  We’ll get back to that later.

What is morality? I’ll hold off on that, as I believe that this actually has little to do with the philosophical point at hand.

Ontology, philosophy of mind, and sets, oh my!

But what are values? I mean, what are they made of?  For that matter, what are facts made of?  I think that for many people, part of the sticking point for many people with Harris’ book is this issue and its relation to the philosophical point at hand.  I feel like Harris’ book addresses an ontological point that seems, at least from a metaphysical naturalistic perspective, trivial; the things we believe, value, and generally experience as conscious beings are actual states of our brains.  They are observable realities about the world.  The physical substance of my brain and the processes that occur there are (in some cases, but not all) my conscious experience.  Observing our brain-states through tools such as MRIs or whatever is just another (low resolution) way of experiencing our brains, which we do all the time by experiencing our own thoughts.

Our brains perceive and simulate, probably very imperfectly, the objective world outside of that process.  The facts about the world are removed from us (in the Kantian sense of noumenal and phenomenal) but our perception allows us to think about them.  Now whether the facts in our heads and the facts of the things themselves (of which Nietzsche was so skeptical about, probably rightfully*) are the same is not the point.  The point is that the facts in our heads are also verifiable and objective realities that can be quantified (at least in principle, even if our technology may be insufficient currently) by scientific analysis.

The things we value are conscious experiences as well.  They are actual brain-states that can, in principle, be observed and quantified in the same way as the fact that I’m typing right now.  Not only is a this fact an observable, quantifiable event in the universe, it is an experience I am currently having.  And in experiencing a value, it is similarly a real event that I have at that moment.  In this sense values are like facts, but are they the same things as facts?  Well, let’s think of facts as being like sets.  In the same way that the set of all cookies includes chocolate chips cookies and peanut butter cookies (and the set of all peanut butter cookies), values are comprised of facts (and sets of facts).    My value of honesty, if I were try and define the term and it’s importance to me, would be comprised of facts in relation to one-another.  And sets of facts can be facts themselves.  So in this trivial sense, values are facts.  They are real states of the world, even if they can be broken down into smaller real states of the world.  I hope this is uncontroversial.

Are values oughts?

I’m not quite sure that the philosophical issue at hand in asking about facts and values is the same as what Hume was addressing.  I think the question has changed in the few centuries between. But first I want to address a hair-splitting point; that of the distinction between the distinctions between is/ought and facts/values.

When Hume (supposedly), and others, say that there is a distinction between facts and values, what can they possibly mean?  This, as I understand it, is Harris’ point.  It seems to me that this distinction is a holdover from times when we thought of ideas not as physical realities, but somehow non-physical things.  This distinction between facts and values is an atavism of a view of mind as a non-physical thing (whatever that means), and criticism is using these obsolete concepts to insist that there still exists a distinction.  The distinction is a linguistic trick, one which is pervasive and resilient.

For the sake of context, here is the section of Hume that Eric MacDonald quoted in his post:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason shou’d be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. [Treatise of Human Nature, Book 3, Part 1, Sect. 1, paragraph 27]

But is this what Harris is doing? Is he identifying facts about the world and saying that because of these facts we should be doing this or that? No, what he is doing is more complex than that. To clarify, I want to make two points:

  • First, the concept of deriving an ought from an is, in a theological context, is not comparable to deriving a value from a fact in a naturalistic worldview.  In a theistic world (not the world of Harris not myself), the state of the world would be a result of the deity’s creation, and so in a sense we might be able to argue that because it is so it may be related to some intention of a god.  Here, Hume’s point is that where a theologian draws the ought from the is, he does not overtly explain how or why he has done so.  And even if he were to try, Hume (as well as I) cannot conceive how.  It is a fair point to make.  But in an atheistic universe, the state of our being, as conscious beings with various facts about ourselves, we cannot draw any ought because an ought necessitates the presence of an agent.   We, the agents, are not the cause of our various facts, but as Sartre said, we find ourselves thrown into the world with them.  At least within a theistic worldview it is possible to indicate some possible teleology, even if you can’t demonstrate its justification (as Hume points out). However, there is not even the possibility of drawing a logical connection between our actual state and what we should be doing within an atheistic worldview without creating, as agents, a goal for ourselves.   This leads to the next point.
  • Harris is saying that there are observable facts and values about us which are discoverable, and if we want to get somewhere (in his case, well being for people) then we need to use science as a means to figure out how to get there.  This would include determining what values we will hold in our lives as motivation and inspiration towards those ends.  The ought only comes into play upon accepting the goal, not as a direct consequence of the facts.  Hume’s observation is a good one, but it seems to me to be more of a commentary on theologians (and others) inability to make this link, not that it is necessarily impossible to do so given goals which may or may not be arbitrary.  Hume does not address, at least in that quote, any goals.  Hume addresses only an ought, which is a means towards some not-discussed goal.

What I keep hearing critics of Harris say is that while science can allow us to find facts about us, it cannot choose what to value.  And to that I can only slap my forehead, because I don’t think Harris is saying that, and I’m certainly not saying that.  Science cannot choose what to value because this is a category error; science does not choose anything because science is a method, not an agent.  So, in other words, science does not choose facts either; the method of science only allows us to recognize what is and is not a fact, and can give us information about its relation to and affects upon other facts.  Similarly, it can allow us to see what values are and how good those values might be at achieving various goals, whether they be well being, ennui, or whatever.  Hume is not talking about facts and goals, and Harris is only doing so insofar as to say that here as his goals, and if we want to reach them here is the best way to do it; science!

What our goals should be, and why that doesn’t matter in discussing facts and values

We are the choosers (Assuming free will is true, but that’s another tangent).   Science is a tool we use to determine the facts about the world, including the facts about ourselves.  One of the facts we can determine about ourselves is what our values are, what values are possible, and which of those values might be better at achieving some goal, which in Harris’ case is well being (which he admits is vague).  So, it seems to me that the critics are conflating the values with the goal (in this case, well being) and arguing that science cannot determine what our goals should be.  These criticisms miss the point completely, because for Harris it is axiomatic that ethics is about increasing well being among people.  His thesis is not to defend this premise, even if it is clear that he thinks this premise is true, but rather how to best find a way to reach it.  If you disagree with this starting point, then you are not addressing Harris’ book’s major thrust, but saying that its metaethical goals are wrong (which they may be), but that does not matter.

Can science determine our goals? Well, of course not.  Just like logic, science is a tool.  A tool can only help you on your journey towards a destination, assuming you have one.  If you don’t have a destination, then the tools are useless.  If you don’t have a goal, then you would not care how, let alone try, to find the best way to reach said goal.  Well being, as I understand Harris’ book,  is NOT the value; it is the vague, admittedly ill-defined concept that our values are being judged as being good at achieving (or not).  And if not well being, then what would be the goal of morality? And whatever that may be, we still would have to use science to determine which facts and values to use towards getting there.  This is why the criticisms about the definition of well being and of utilitarianism are missing the point so much.  It does not matter if the goal is wrong, the method still has to be science to get there.  That is what Harris’ book, as I understand it, is about.

Now, if Harris, or myself, were arguing that science can help us decide what we should think the goal should be (it can help define the parameters and factors, for sure), then I would be with the critics.  But all I (and, I think, Harris) are saying is that the ideals or principles we think are  important in trying to attain well being (or whatever goal we choose) are quantifiable, measurable things.  And no method can compare to science in determining what those values should be, thus a science of morality is possible even if the goal of that morality is up for grabs.

Eric MacDonald’s criticisms, as well as other criticisms about the poorly defined concept of well being, are problems that Harris admits to, and so do I.  We know that more research is necessary, and that implementing what we find will be a huge uphill climb to the peaks of Harris’ landscape.  Problems with utilitarianism and definitions of well being are only secondary to Harris’ thesis, which are about how our values, as facts, are real things that can be measured in terms of composition and effectiveness towards whatever goals we are trying to attain.   If you don’t know what well being is, or if your specific goal in being well differs from mine, that does not matter. Harris’ (and my) goal is well being, but that is a variable in the equation, not a coefficient.

Just as we can be wrong about facts, we can be wrong about valuing certain things.  Values are not objects outside the realm of analysis and criticism, they are brain states just like facts and equally subject to being wrong.  In other words, what you value may in fact be bad for you and whatever goals you have.  And if so, science is the best tool we have to describe how and why.

*”We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities”

[edit: I want to add that the goals we may have are also facts in the same sense as values are here.  And the question of what goals to choose is indeed a philosophical one that science can help clarify.  But just as science cannot choose the goals, it cannot choose the values or facts either.  Again, that is a category error.]



1. Ginny - May 8, 2011

Let me see if I can recap. You’re saying that:
– The values I hold are facts.
– I probably have some goal, some arch-value, which I think is the most important ethical or moral accomplishment.
– That arch-value is also a fact.
– Science cannot help me select that arch-value, but it can help me sort between my other values and understand which of them will help achieve that arch-value and which will hinder it.
– Harris’s arch-value is wellbeing, and he’s not (in this book) interested in defending or defining that value, but in describing how science can help sort through other human values and see which are helpful to achieving wellbeing and which are detrimental.
– Though he doesn’t show it, his methods and core idea would apply equally well to some other arch-value.

Is that about right?

2. shaunphilly - May 8, 2011


All of your conscious experiences are facts. Values are just ideas we have that are things we find important.

Well, the difference is that the goal is not a value per se. It is a drive we have towards happiness. It is the axiom of morality; without it there would be no discussion. A value is more of a tactic or means towards gaining that happiness (Sam calls it well being, but it’s essentially the same).

Do you need the scientific method to choose to want happiness? Can it help you find what things can help get you there? It is unecessary for the first, and helpful for the second.

Harris does spend some time giving reasons for well being as the goal of moral talk. But he does not have to defend it with arguments because, for him, this is axiomatic. His argument is essentially that people want this well being automatically.

I’m saying, and I am pretty sure Harris would agree, that even if we were to disagree that well being (or happiness) is the goal of our moral thinking, science would have to be the tool to figure out how to best achieve our moral goals.

Studying the brain, which involves science, tells us what ideas (facts and values) have what effects on our behaviors, feelings, intentions, etc. These are the essential components of moral philosophy.

3. Ginny - May 8, 2011

Is his argument that all people want wellbeing automatically (or, to put it differently, that all people have this drive toward happiness)? Or that he does, and he takes it as axiomatic for his system of morality?

It does seem obvious that the overwhelming majority of people have a drive towards a sense of wellbeing for themselves, but what they imagine that state of wellbeing to look like, and whether their drive extends to the wellbeing of others (and if so, which others), can vary widely. I think this, to most people, is the really interesting and urgent question of morality, and as far as I can tell Harris doesn’t address it.

4. Shatakan - March 2, 2012

Sorry bro, you’ve twisted and softened some of the rhetoric but Harris is either:
a. Not making any kind of philosophical point, or
b. Committing the naturalistic fallacy.

I’ve read the book, and to me it seems very clear that he begins from fundamentally false meta-ethical assumptions and goes downhill from there. If your argument is correct, then he is abandoning philosophy entirely to make an argument about moral psychology, the likes of which has been made before by many better psychologists than Harris. His argument is either crap philosophy, or banal, pointless psychology. Either way, the book is turgid and a worthless read. I’d encourage you to crawl out of your den of entry-level teenage atheist texts and engage with the wide world of mature philosophy, which to your credit it sounds like you are already halfway toward 😀 Keep going!

shaunphilly - March 2, 2012

I suppose this would be a bad time to mention that I have a MA in philosophy. But keep up the condescension!

I’m familiar with much of the sophisticated literature concerning moral philosophy. Much of it I find nonsensical and meaningless, some of it I find insightful. Keep in mind that Harris is not a philosopher, he’s not writing for a philosophical audience, and much that he argues is in general agreement with much of what Hilary Putnam has been saying for years (i.e. the collapse of the fact/value dichotomy, for starters) who was influenced by people such as Quine.

But, thanks for stopping by.

5. An unchallenged value is not worth much; or why your values might be wrong « atheist, polyamorous, skeptics - December 11, 2012

[…] is, we should be skeptical not only about facts, but also values.  I, along with people such as Hilary Putnam and (seemingly) Sam Harris, think that the qualitative distinction between facts and values is […]

6. The Virtue of Selfishness: The Objectivist Ethics: a critique (part 2) | atheist, polyamorous skeptics - April 1, 2014

[…] (For some context on my views about the relationship between facts, values, is, and oughts, see my post here) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: