Friday, February 19, 2010

Pinker vs Hurlbut at MIT

Minding our Morals: Freedom and the Brain from The Veritas Forum on Vimeo.

(Feb 19, 2010)

Dr. Pinker starts out with characteristic lucitidy, laying his "ontological cards" on the table, as he says. He makes the case that the complexity of the brain itself explains the complexity of psychology and gives rise to subjective experience. He goes on to clearly outline the compatibilist position that free will and physical determinism coexist perfectly well, in the most sensible sense of those phrases. He then describes the nature of moral responsibility, by which he means holding other people accountable for their actions via deterrent means ranging from disapproval to incarceration or worse. He goes on to briefly outline the sociobiological origins and utility of naturalistic human morality.

Dr. Hurlbut doesn't think that science alone is an adaquate way of discussing morality, and eventually gets around to the usual notions of transcendent truth, mysterious moral awareness thereof, indeterminist free will, inherent meaning in nature, and other such ancient superstitions. He does not attempt to demonstrate that these conceptual categories have real world referents, but instead appeals to the intuitions of the audience. For once, this might be a bad idea, given the critical and analytical proclivities of MIT students. He rambles around for quite awhile, but it seems that his overarching argument was that humans are mysterious and wonderful beings, and we really ought not attempt to empircally test and deconstruct their essential characteristics such as love and empathy and morality. Or something touchy feeling like that. He closes with something like an altar call.

Their back and forth coffee chat (with audience Q&A) wends itself around various topics, and is notable in at least two respects. Pinker manages to demonstrate how to unfailingly polite even as he vigorously questions his interlocutors deeply held beliefs, and Hurlbut shows us that even reputable M.D.'s occasionally fall back on faith-healing, at least where mental health is concenred. Ok, that is just a bit unfair, but you can the idea.

Overall rating: 3.5
Believer rating: 2.5
Uneliever rating: 4.5

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