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morality, philosophy, science

Can Science Talk About Morality?

Since this week’s topic appears to be accommodationism, I need to address one of the most common claims of accommodationists and theists:  Science is great at describing objective reality, such as comets and DNA, but it can’t address philosophical or metaphysical questions of meaning, especially morality. The idea is that religion contributes to the collective discussion on morality, while science sits by, incapable of comment.

To put my response in a nutshell… horse hockey!

In the first place, I’ve addressed religion’s inability to contribute to the collective moral compass.  Even though that article was specifically directed towards Christianity,  the concept can be expanded to any religion which claims any “revealed” moral convention.  As we all know (but some of us are reluctant to admit) religions without a claim of moral revelation are about as rare as hen’s teeth.

In the second place, the argument that morality is beyond science is ignorant in a quaint, first year philosophy student kind of way.  Pardon me for being harsh, but quoting enlightenment philosophers is great for impressing geek girls, but it doesn’t contribute much to a discussion of morality. The bulk of our knowledge of the evolutionary foundations of morality, our understanding of the neurology of morality, and the investigative tools necessary to evaluate morality objectively all date to the mid to late 20th century.  We might as well talk about evolution using only texts from before Darwin.

In a broad sense, morality is the box that holds all actions by social animals which affect the social environment.  In a specific sense, human morality is the evaluation of actions which change the environment for other humans (or potentially, other living beings).   We’ve been talking about human morality in this sense for a long time, but the realization that morality is an evolutionary adaptation, and that it has specific genetic underpinnings, is recent news.  We now know that just about every social animal has “moral mandates” which are enforced by the group.  We now have the tools to run incredibly complex simulations with enormous populations to demonstrate the macro-effects of sets of moral algorithms.

I’m getting ahead of myself…

Obsolete Conceptions of Morality

The argument that science cannot address morality is based on one of several misconceptions about the nature of morality.  In religious context, “good” and “evil” are qualities like “green” or “loud.”  Indeed, mythology and oral history are full of references to objects or locations that are good or evil.  Satan is seen as the embodiment of evil in the same way that god is the embodiment of good.

Scientists are happy to admit that empirical testing cannot address questions involving the objective qualities of good and evil.  But this isn’t an indictment of science.  It’s a refutation of the invalid categorization of the concepts.  To put it bluntly, it’s a polite way of calling bullshit on the religious claims that good and evil exist as metaphysical or supernatural “things.”

Another misconception is the belief that morality is completely subjective, and therefore falls into the same category as taste in music or art.  Science can address the neurology behind pleasure receptors and dopamine and such, but it can’t explain why I like Led Zepplin.  In the same way, it can’t decipher the arbitrary whims that lead to cultural moral standards.

As I mentioned previously, this is just scientific ignorance.  We have discovered that morality is driven by several hardwired instincts.  In its most simple form, we can say that morality is the expression of our drive to create fairness.  (It’s more complicated than that, but that’s another post.)  The famous Trolley Problem and other such tests have demonstrated that we have an innate template for determining the value of human life.  (Spoiler:  It’s not priceless.  The Hallmark Channel Movie of the Week is wrong.)

As a final fall-back position, some people will assert that even with our knowledge of the origins and genetic underpinnings of morality, it is still ultimately ineffable.  It is simply impossible, they claim, to predict individual morality with any degree of accuracy.  There is still a degree of subjectivity that accounts for intricacies and wide variances of moral evaluation that are so removed from “base genetic drives” that we might as well admit that it’s a problem for philosophers, not scientists.

This approach seems to rely on an implicit inclusion of free will.  That is, it relies on humans making decisions which are genuinely arbitrary.  In a way, it’s just a more “sophisticated” way of saying that morality is subjective and therefore exempt from scientific evaluation.  The thing is, all the evidence (and all the good critical thinking) points away from the existence of free will.  Anytime we examine humans in large groups, we discover that individual decisions are far from arbitrary.  In fact, the advertising and marketing industries are founded on the observation that manipulating the environment alters the decisions that we make.

Additionally, we have ways of scientifically describing stochastic processes.  Even if there is an element of practical arbitrariness in moral reasoning, this is not a problem for science.  We have proven repeatedly that we can model such systems and even make rather specific predictions about them.

Can Science Tell Us How To Behave?

Having dispelled the myth that science cannot describe morality, we are left with one final claim:  Science can tell us why morality exists, but it cannot tell us what to do. Of all the objections, this one is the most valid.  Science is descriptive, not prescriptive.  Because of this, “pure science” cannot give us a moral framework in the same way that a religion can.

However, this observation doesn’t save the argument.  Science can offer us far more than a set of inscrutable moral dictates.  If we begin with an accurate understanding of what our instinctive moral drives are, why they exist, and what they represent from an evolutionary perspective, we can examine our own emotions and beliefs about our own moral actions.  We can then evaluate our actions using science.  We can determine whether what we believe about our actions translates to objective results.

So in a very real sense, science can tell us how to achieve our moral goals.  It can tell us that X action is likely or unlikely to create happiness, fairness, respect, or anything else we want to gain.  Perhaps more importantly, it can tell us that some of our emotional moral responses are misplaced.  Science is the litmus test for our moral intuition.

This last point has far-reaching implications.  Science has taught us that our moral instincts are not designed to tell us the best thing to do in every situation.  They are blanket templates which, when applied to whole populations, will benefit the species in evolutionary time.  The flip side of this is that our moral instincts sometimes fill us with emotions which lead us to morally wrong actions.

Did you get that?  It’s very important.  Our emotional intuition — our conscience — is sometimes wrong.  Our current society is evolutionarily novel.  There are a lot of situations for which evolution has left us completely unprepared.  Scientific evaluation can tell us when our emotional feelings about moral decisions are based on evolutionary models that are not applicable for us today.  We can make better moral decisions by understanding the objective, scientific qualities of our moral instinct.

With all the objections out of the way, we need one more piece of the puzzle to completely dispense with the idea that science and morality are incompatible.  There is a long-standing myth that is part and parcel of Western monotheist society.  (I made reference to it in this article.)  We in the West are inculcated into the belief that humans are morally “broken” and require “fixing.”  We believe that without some sort of external force exerted upon humanity, we will descend into depravity and destruction.

Science has dispelled this myth.  Like the “debate” between creationism and evolution, the myth of “evil humanity” is over before it begins.  Humans are neither inherently good or evil.  We are, however, inherently moral.  This distinction is critically important.  Except for the extremely rare incurable sociopath, all humans have an innate moral drive.  We want to be moral.  This is not to say that we always want to do the most selfless thing.  It means that we cannot help but participate in the evolutionary process of morality.  It is intrinsic to humanity.

Not only should we not remove morality from science, we must recognize the moral imperative to use all of our resources to learn as much as we can about it.  The more we know about our moral drives, the more power we have to shape our environment in ways that foster more desirable actions and discourage undesirable behaviors.  The better we understand why people behave badly, the more tools we have for preventing bad behavior.  The more we understand cultural influences, the better we can evaluate which social conventions are valuable and which contribute to societal dysfunction.

Can Science Design the “Perfect Morality”?

Before leaving this topic, I need to make one important disclaimer.  Some philosophers of science are interested in discovering the “one true scientific human moral code.”  That is, they want to demonstrate that there is a set of human behaviors which is objectively “the best way to behave.”  I believe this is an exercise in futility.   One of humanity’s most valuable adaptations is its behavioral flexibility.  From our ability to live in virtually any earth environment to our mating flexibility to our moral flexibility, we are blessed among “higher animals” with an unprecedented capacity for making the best of our environment.

The “best way to behave” is a function of the environment.  Because our environments are incredibly diverse, the value of various human actions is also incredibly flexible.  Since morality judgment is a reflection of relative value, we must concede that any objective moral framework we come up with will only be valid when the relative value of moral variables remains consistent.  When value changes, the morality of actions change.

Furthermore, we’re still stuck with the age-old question:  How do we objectively decide the “ultimate goal” of morality?  Is it better for everyone to be equal or for everyone to have as much freedom as possible?  What about reproduction?  How do we value our own reproductive “rights” against our impact on the environment?  Is happiness or healthiness more valuable?  Long life or rich life?

Science tells us that we cannot hope to attain “perfect morality.”  Our moral instincts are a hodge-podge of adaptations which often contradict each other — for instance, our drive to survive vs. our drive to reproduce vs. our drive to protect our family.  In the same way, moral systems overlap, even within a single society.

We can, however, achieve very good societies by recognizing the limitations of moral systems and incorporating our scientific knowledge into each moral decision, recognizing that we can certainly speak of morality in terms of “better” and “worse” with respect to our current environment and its inherent moral valuations.  We can recognize that some cultural norms are causing more objective harm than good and attempt to promote more functional norms.

But we should be careful to recognize that some cultural valuations — such as individualism and collectivism — are functional in their own ways, and come with their own limitations.  A historical survey of “pure communism” and “pure capitalism” ought to demonstrate that a balance between individualism and collectivism is the only sane way to structure a society.  We in the west believe that nothing is better than self-determination and freedom.  We feel intuitively that individualism is better than collectivism.  But there is a giant continent over there on the other side of the world that has been functioning very well for thousands of years with an equally strong “innate” belief that collectivism is better, and that things work out best when duty to society supersedes individual freedom.  In truth, we’re both right and we’re both wrong.  Humanity is flexible enough that we can function and be happy in both settings.

So what is the answer to the question?  Can science talk about morality?  Absolutely.  It already has.  Can science tell us what to do?  No, but it can tell us what is likely to happen if we do something.  It can give us tools to help us achieve our moral goals and to understand why we have those goals.  It can help us evaluate the outcomes of our moral actions, which can in turn help us shape our moral beliefs.  Can science create a perfect morality?  No.  “Perfect Morality” belongs in the history scrapbooks along with the “universal man” and the “pillars of the earth.”

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Discussion

23 thoughts on “Can Science Talk About Morality?

  1. Hamby Hamby Hamby, Where do we start? Well lets start with this little gem…

    Hamby wrote:
    Scientists are happy to admit that empirical testing cannot address questions involving the objective qualities of good and evil. But this isn’t an indictment of science. It’s a refutation of the invalid categorization of the concepts. To put it bluntly, it’s a polite way of calling bullshit on the religious claims that good and evil exist as metaphysical or supernatural “things.”

    PG Response:
    No Hamby, its called the Scientific method. Science is on my side regarding this issue because science for the most part understands its limitations, something you dont seem to understand. The reason why scientists are as you yourself stated :

    “happy to admit that empirical testing cannot address questions involving the objective qualities of good and evil” …
    …is because it beyond the scope of scientific contruct..

    The rest of your blog post is simply your efforts to refute the scientific community’s current position regarding philosophy in order to promote your own
    …should I dare say it…philosophy.

    When science is used to define morality, it creates a religion like scientology.

    By the way, if there is a gene mandating that you like Led Zepplin, it will surely be selected for extinction.. He He!

    .

    .

    Posted by PG | June 29, 2010, 7:08 pm
  2. It seems as though some things not stateable as a hypothesis are “bullshit” (good) while others (taste) are not. How am I to tell the difference?

    And I really can’t help this bit of snarkiness – since you agree that the ‘whats’ of morality are outside the realm of science, may I ask how many ‘geek girls’ you have seduced this freshman year? 😉

    Posted by Adam | June 29, 2010, 7:36 pm
  3. You missed the point. The “whats” of morality aren’t outside the realm of science. Science cannot tell you “what” to do, but it can tell you which actions are better or worse for you depending on your desired outcome. This pretty clearly tells me “what” I should do, depending on the outcome desired. If you want to be happy, science can tell you how; If you want to be healthy, science can tell you how; If you want all your friends to be happy and healthy, science can tell you how; If you want _____, science can tell you how*.

    *how being the actions most likely to lead to the desired result.

    So, if we define morality as doing what’s best for person X in situation Y, then we can easily (using the scientific method over repeated experimental situations) determine the “best” course of action for person X.

    As to anything being outside the scope of science, every time someone says that, yet another mystery is explained somewhere on this planet using science. Yet one more thing previously “outside the scope of science” is made clear and knowable, by science. There isn’t anything outside the scope of science, there’s just things we can’t yet explain, and so have no position on.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | June 29, 2010, 8:26 pm
  4. (Ahem…)

    Well, Adam, matters of taste are not outside the realm of science nor are they incapable of being stated as hypotheses. It’s just that most people don’t bother because… why bother? (Ever notice that everybody in Atlanta likes Coke, while everybody in Milwaukee likes Pepsi? Did you think that was random?)

    Most people are pretty good at separating matters of taste from issues that have big effects on life in general. You know… cause and effect? When things have big effects, they’re important. When they don’t, they’re not.

    I’m a bit surprised that you believe I said the “whats” of morality are outside the realm of science. Especially since I said the exact opposite. But for the record, back when I was in grad school, I used the scientific method to evaluate the effectiveness of various behaviors on geek girls’ feelings of attraction. The results were satisfying. Thanks for your concern.

    Posted by hambydammit | June 30, 2010, 7:19 am
  5. “Science can address the neurology behind pleasure receptors and dopamine and such, but it can’t explain why I like Led Zepplin. In the same way, it can’t decipher the arbitrary whims that lead to cultural moral standards.”

    “Science is descriptive, not prescriptive. Because of this, “pure science” cannot give us a moral framework in the same way that a religion can.”

    “Can science tell us what to do? No, but it can tell us what is likely to happen if we do something.”

    These must be incomplete descriptions of your actual position then.

    I think what would be helpful to all parties involved would be if you were to explain why you are (if I have it right) a metaphysical naturalist and a materialist. That would probably cut to the heart of peoples’ disagreements across your blog.

    Posted by Adam Call Roberts | June 30, 2010, 11:53 am
  6. Well yeah… you’re listing the objections I was refuting. Yes, I typed those words, but if you read carefully, you’ll see that they were in the voice of a hypothetical interlocutor. At least the bit about Led Zepplin and the bit about science being descriptive.

    Science can (and has) told us why Led Zepplin is pleasurable. I took a really great class about a decade ago which included a section on the psychology of rhythm and harmony. It’s amazing what we already know about it.

    I’m kind of stumped as to what you’re confused about in all of this. Let me try one more time. When we say “you should do this,” in reference to a moral action, we are prescribing an action because we believe it to be the morally correct thing to do. Being sentient living beings, we can have beliefs about such things. On the other hand, science is not a sentient being. It is a process. It cannot have beliefs, and cannot make recommendations. Science, being a cognitive tool, is incapable of agency, and therefore cannot have an opinion on morality.

    But this isn’t a problem: Science doesn’t have an opinion on anything. Science doesn’t have opinions. Scientists use science as a tool to discover properties of reality, and then scientists form opinions.

    Morality is a tool, too. It’s an innate system of evaluating the significance of actions within a society. While it is incredibly complex, it is not beyond understanding. (We’ve proven this by “decoding” the moral algorithm for less complex social systems, such as those of bats, ants, and bees.) We can use science to discover our own moral instincts, and with that knowledge, we can form opinions on what we should do.

    The “unbridgeable gap” between science and morality is a myth for several reasons, which I elucidated. Some people misunderstand “good” and “evil,” thinking them to be ineffable qualities. Some people think morality is entirely arbitrary. Some people think morality is too complex to understand. They’re all mistaken. Morality is one aspect of human cognition, which is well within the scope of scientific inquiry.

    Posted by hambydammit | June 30, 2010, 3:22 pm
  7. No one, to my knowledge, has ever claimed that morality can’t be studied scientifically. What they *have* said is that there are aspects to morality that can’t be proven scientifically.

    Personally, I agree with most of what you write in this post, and I imagine anyone would. What I’m interested in – and what I think would be an interesting post to see – is the assumption you make here and elsewhere that if something can’t be answered by science is it automatically “bullshit.” Are you a logical positivist?

    Posted by Adam Call Roberts | July 2, 2010, 1:46 am
  8. I’m going to disagree with you on there being anything about anything that science can’t prove/disprove. There may be things that science cannot at this point in time be proven or dis-proven, but a few hundred years ago the earth was flat and the center of the universe, so yeah, give it a few more years.

    Answering any question with science is a matter of time, not a matter of possibility.

    Posted by sunflame | July 2, 2010, 9:49 am
  9. sunflame – why?

    Posted by Adam Call Roberts | July 2, 2010, 10:05 am
  10. Because there is no other alternative that matters. If science doesn’t answer a question, it doesn’t prove or disprove anything, except that our current level of science is insufficient to answer that question.

    If it can’t be proven by science, then it doesn’t matter enough to have any impact on any factor of my life that I can possibly have any control over.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | July 2, 2010, 1:07 pm
  11. FYI, sunflame and I are the same person. wordpress account creation and subsequent editing of my profile, thus name changes back and forth. This should be the last time.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | July 2, 2010, 1:08 pm
  12. Adam, the impetus is on you here. Name something specific about morality that science can’t address.

    Re: logical positivism, I’m honestly not a fan of the famous philosophy bandwagon. Too often, discussions of reality descend into metaphorical dick size competitions where the person who drops the most obscure name has the bigger dick.

    Am I a positivist? I dunno. Do you mean to ask if I agree with everything Wittgenstein wrote? No… But frankly, I can’t recall a philosophy text I agreed with a hundred percent.

    If we had an in depth discussion of metaphysics, maybe we could come to an agreement on a definition. If we did that, maybe we could agree on ontology. From there, we might be able to determine the influence of language on metaphysics and ontology. If we could agree on all of that, maybe we could come up with a system in which I could properly be called a positivist.

    In the meantime, I’m just a guy plodding through this life going with what works — reason, empiricism, science. I go with them because nothing else has worked. Ever. I can’t think of anything that qualifies as a hypothesis explaining an aspect of reality for which science, reason, and empiricism doesn’t work.

    As a disclaimer… I think there are some questions which are appropriately answered “non-scientifically.” How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? Seventy two. That’s the answer. I promise. What numbers should you play on the lottery tomorrow? 24, 23, 11, 5, and 31. Will the Cubs ever win the World Series? No.

    I didn’t use the scientific method or reason to answer any of those questions, and that’s fine. But none of those questions are meaningful enough — pragmatically — to bother employing science to find an answer. Until someone finds an angel, how am I to measure their feet? Why bother trying to predict a stochastic process in a single instance? Why bother trying to predict the future of a sport? These are questions of opinion. And like I said earlier, some things are just not significant enough to bother with the rigors (and expense) of science as a way of answering them. And some (like predicting lottery numbers) are such low-probability propositions that science is as helpful as non-science — which is to say “not helpful at all.” But… there is nothing better than science in this. Guessing, reading tea leaves, praying to God… all of these methods are equally unsuccessful.

    So… there you go. Call me a positivist if you like. I don’t care. But let’s not argue over which label to pin on me. Let’s talk about the topic at hand.

    Can you name an aspect of morality which science cannot address? What is it? Be specific.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 2, 2010, 1:33 pm
  13. I don’t blame you for not wanting to take up a label – I find that it usually leads to people arguing against the label rather than your actual beliefs. It doesn’t sound like you’re a logical positivist anyway.

    I’m glad you answered – I’d gotten the incomplete impression that you were opposed to the idea of non-scientific methods of truth-finding on principle, rather than on the provision, pragmatic grounds you describe here. Personally, I find that completely defensible.

    As for the morality question, it doesn’t seem as though science can make the choice to be moral for us. It can describe morality and correct our ethics if we wish to be consistent, but the choice as to whether or not I value morality isn’t one that is within the realm of science.

    For an attempt to state things more clearly – we can scientifically discover that human morality says I shouldn’t cheat on my wife, we can examine the different ways that infidelity works in different cultures, we can biologically and neurologically examine the consequences of infidelity and the impulses against it, and we can logically state that cheating on my wife would be inconsistent with my ethical principles and that it would be “wrong.” But it can’t tell me to not cheat on my wife.

    Posted by Adam Call Roberts | July 2, 2010, 8:53 pm
  14. No, I don’t consider myself a logical positivist, and yes, my answer was designed to get away from arguing philosophy instead of the question at hand, which is still concerned with whether there is a “hole” in morality which demands an answer, and which science is incapable of answering.

    The thing is, you keep dancing around the broad point that I’m making. You agree with it, but then you seem to want to leave yourself some wiggle room. I already addressed the statement that “science” cannot tell us to be moral. Of course it can’t. Science can’t tell us to do anything because science is a tool for discovering truths about the universe, not a being with agency and desires that has a vested interest in how we behave.

    Maybe that’s where we’re getting hung up. Remember that “moral instinct” is just that — an instinct. Except for incurable sociopaths, all humans participate in morality. It’s built into our genes. Nobody has to tell us to be moral. We are moral animals. Let me repeat that for emphasis. We don’t need god, or science, or anything else to tell us to be moral. We are moral agents.

    Now, we could conflate concepts here, and say, “Well, yes, we do need someone to tell us to be moral. Parents do it to their kids all the time. The police department is a great big symbol that communicates, ‘Be good or else'”. But that is equating “good” with “moral,” and that’s not the way I’ve been using the word. “Moral” is concerned with all actions judged as either good or bad. A person is engaging in moral behavior when he steals and when he donates his time to charity. One behavior is morally bad and one is morally good. So… I repeat, we do not need anything to “tell us to be moral.” We are moral.

    We also don’t need science to tell us to be good. We tell each other to be good, and have done so since we invented language. Science is a valuable tool which can give us empirical evidence with which we can provide rational reasons for being good. We shouldn’t discount that, obviously. And here is where I keep trying to convince you of the irrelevance of anything except science for discussing morality. Let’s examine non-scientific moral dictates:

    Tyrannical Government/Ruler: Be good (in the way I describe it) or I’ll kill you. It’s certainly useful for tyrants, but it guarantees no benefit to the governed, and in fact, is often seen as a morally bad behavior. The needs of the one outweighing the needs of the many goes against our moral instincts. But how could we know that if we didn’t know what our moral instincts are? Science is the tool we use to discover those instincts.

    Religion: Be good (in the way I describe it) or you’ll go to hell (come back as a cockroach, ruin your karma, etc…). Again, quite useful if you can convince people of the existence of your deity of choice. But it’s still little more than tyrannical arbitrary dictates. Does god say it’s wrong to be homosexual? Then it’s wrong to be homosexual, and we have no way to question it or empirically verify the truth of the claim. On the other hand, if we use science to examine homosexuality and discover that it’s a normal, functional part of sexuality all over the animal kingdom, we have more “true” morality than from religion.

    Gut Feelings: I will be good because it feels like I ought to. Useful, to be sure. At the most basic level, this is why we are moral. We are born with the moral instinct, and we want to be good because it feels right to be good. But our conscience is far from infallible. In fact, we live in an evolutionarily novel environment for which our collective moral instincts have not been prepared. Without using science and reason, our “conscience” will lead us down the wrong path fairly often.

    But… you guessed it… if we use science to discover why and how our conscience functions, we can use that information to override our conscience when it urges us in the wrong direction.

    I could go on, but the point should be clear. Science is the only tool which gives us any meaningful information about morality, and neither intuition, religion, or government can offer us more meaningful or more accurate information. Or, to put it bluntly, if you can read everything we have learned from science about morality and not infer the instruction to be moral, you might want to look into the possibility that you’re an incurable sociopath.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 3, 2010, 4:18 pm
  15. It seems we agree on the central issue – science can’t tell us to do anything. That’s certainly not a knock on science. It’s not supposed to do that and doesn’t function like that.

    I do agree that normal humans have a moral instinct. However, I’ve found that normal humans also find morality to be one of the ‘big questions.’ You might have a point with Nietzsche being somewhat of a sociopath, but it seems perfectly normal and legitimate to ask “Why shouldn’t I simply ignore my moral instinct?” Personally, I don’t have an answer to that I’m able to express in words very well at all.

    ————-

    I’m not sure there’s any difference between the Tyrannical Government category and the Religion, Gut Feelings and Science category, since there have been tyrants who relied on each of the 3.

    ‘Religion’ doesn’t at all seem to be the best word to describe your second category. Especially as described – (“Be good (in the way I describe it) or you’ll go to hell”) since the predominant religion in our culture teaches that people go to Heaven *despite* their failure to be good.

    For example, we both (I assume) disagree with the Roman Catholic catechism’s statement that the use of contraceptives is immoral. Yet the catechism and Roman theologians never make the claim that God said contraceptives are wrong, and there’s nothing to the effect found in the Bible. This view has developed over several centuries of debate and reasoning to develop a position that most closely reflects moral values. Now, both you and I think their reasoning is in error, but that doesn’t change the fact that they used the reasoning process to get to their incorrect conclusion.

    There certainly are plenty of religious people who believe something is right or wrong “because God said so” and homosexuality is a very good example of such. Perhaps “unquestioning dogma” might be a better label?

    I think you’ve analyzed Gut Feelings more or less correctly.

    I’m completely in favor of scientifically analyzing morality in the ways you described in your post. But I’m very wary of your optimism. One of science’s biggest strengths is that its truths are provisional, but the false steps it took on morality from about 1800 – 1980 released the worst dystopic hell holes we’ve ever seen. Things are certainly quite a bit better in 2010 in secular Europe than they are in Catholic Uganda. But, at least to me, it seems as though the problem is dogmatism and a refusal to recognize individual rights, not religion or science.

    Posted by Adam Call Roberts | July 3, 2010, 5:44 pm
  16. I do agree that normal humans have a moral instinct. However, I’ve found that normal humans also find morality to be one of the ‘big questions.’ You might have a point with Nietzsche being somewhat of a sociopath, but it seems perfectly normal and legitimate to ask “Why shouldn’t I simply ignore my moral instinct?” Personally, I don’t have an answer to that I’m able to express in words very well at all.

    Sure you have an answer. Because if you ignore your moral instinct for very long, things will very likely go badly for you. You’ll end up with no friends, or in jail, or something like that. You can justify the occasional bad behavior when the value of the gain will be greater than the negative sanctions you might receive if you are found out. But you can’t justify habitual bad behavior as easily since people will eventually get tired of your shit.

    I’m not sure there’s any difference between the Tyrannical Government category and the Religion, Gut Feelings and Science category, since there have been tyrants who relied on each of the 3.

    Meh. Not really relevant to the question at hand. Label things however you want. I don’t care. What’s important is that any non-scientific moral dictate carries weight only insofar as it can be enforced. Such a dictate doesn’t add to the discussion of what is genuinely good or bad, only to what is permissible or impermissible. That’s not the same as morality.

    Now, both you and I think their reasoning is in error, but that doesn’t change the fact that they used the reasoning process to get to their incorrect conclusion.

    Geez, Adam. You’ve got me banging my head on my desk here. We cannot help but use reasoning. “Reasoning” is the description of how we move from data to conclusions. But there are different ways to reason, and only one works — valid reasoning. Similarly, we can plug all manner of data into a valid rational argument, but the only data that will provide true results is true data. Yes, the Catholics reasoned their way to a belief in the immorality of contraceptives — because their reasoning was invalid and their data was false.

    Science is the process of finding true data and using valid reasoning to come to true conclusions. So… using science to answer questions about morality is the best (and only reliable) way to come up with true answers.

    I’m completely in favor of scientifically analyzing morality in the ways you described in your post. But I’m very wary of your optimism. One of science’s biggest strengths is that its truths are provisional, but the false steps it took on morality from about 1800 – 1980 released the worst dystopic hell holes we’ve ever seen.

    Again, science doesn’t promise true results. It is simply the only method we have with which to arrive at true results if we have good data. Scientists (at least good scientists) are always aware of the provisional nature of conclusions. I don’t want to sound condescending here, but are you aware of how basic scientific findings are presented in papers? There’s a thing called a p-value, which is essentially the probability that the results of an experiment were due to random chance and not a real correlation. The lower the p value, the more significant the results, and the greater the chance that the answer is true.

    So yeah, you’re right. Science can’t promise perfect and true answers to questions of morality. But it is still the only reliable method we have. Any scientific answer will come with a provision that it could be proven wrong in the future.

    The thing is, Adam, it’s the religious who promise 100% true answers. In a world without fairie tales, we always have to play the best hand we can with the cards we’ve been dealt. Science is what we’ve got to work with, and the data we have is the data we have. We’re always trying to get more and better data, and we’re always seeking to discover where we’ve got things wrong. It’s a continual process, and in general, it has always tended towards more accuracy.

    But, at least to me, it seems as though the problem is dogmatism and a refusal to recognize individual rights, not religion or science.

    Science is the opposite of dogmatism, Adam. Science is the answer to the problem of dogmatism.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 3, 2010, 6:28 pm
  17. Again Hamby,

    Your utopian ideals smash into the wall of reality.

    Why?

    You cannot get ought from is!”-David Humes

    To attempt to do so creates

    wait for it….

    a scientific Dogma!

    As the disenting posters on your blog continue to remind you, that there is no universal objectivty of morality that is even accepted within the science community, let alone the rest of society.

    Example: Atheist Sean Carroll is using Atheist Sam Harris as his whipping boy by reminding him of Humes “ought from is” conclusions.

    “If you have a dispute that cannot, in principle, be decided with observable facts about the world, your dispute is not one of science.” -Sean Carroll

    Sean Carroll is right! there is no way to answer moral questions by doing experiments, even in principle.

    “When two people have different views about what constitutes real well-being, there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove one of them to be wrong. It doesn’t mean that moral conversation is impossible, just that it’s not science.” – Sean Carroll

    Sean also brings up many valid points:

    1) There’s no single definition of well-being!

    2) It’s not self-evident that maximizing well-being, however defined, is the proper goal of morality

    3)There’s no simple way to aggregate well-being over different individuals.

    Just think Hamby,
    If you have this much disention among the scientific Atheists ranks, how could you ever possibly get a consensus when the scientists who are also Believers are now asked to put down their Bibles. torahs, etc, because science can now answer all their moral questions.

    And then science will need to get the rest of society to do the same…

    Yeah right!

    The bottom line is that until science can provide empirical evidence that there is no God, then attempting to purge God of all moral authority is simply an Atheist wet dream.

    Asking science to go beyond the scope of its limitations to address morality is simply deflecting away from its first requirement; which would be the discovery of empirical evidence to disprove the existance of God.

    In otherwords Hamby, Your science needs to kill God, before you can crown your new God of science…

    .
    .

    Posted by PG | July 4, 2010, 12:13 am
  18. LOL. This is hilarious.

    When are you going to say something that points to God providing a better “moral guidebook” than science? All you’ve said is that the question is very complex and varies from individual to individual. None of that explains how God answers it any better than science.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | July 7, 2010, 4:12 pm
  19. Alex,

    LOL. This is hilarious.

    When are you going to say something that points to God providing a better “moral guidebook” than science? All you’ve said is that the question is very complex and varies from individual to individual. None of that explains how God answers it any better than science.

    PG says:
    I dont have to make any such claims. The fact that the subjective act of attempting to define morality is not science, is more than sufficient.

    .

    Posted by PG | July 7, 2010, 10:56 pm
  20. PG, you seem to conflate “define” with “discover.” You, my friend, can “define” morality in any way you choose. Language is just symbols that stand for things. You can point morality to anything you like.

    However, science has DISCOVERED that humans are hardwired to a particular template of evaluating social actions. This template exists, no matter what you call it. Since it is a perfect explanation for what previous generations have DEFINED as morality, we keep the label.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 8, 2010, 2:58 pm
  21. Hamby,

    Its getting difficult distinguishing your ideals from the Christians who state that everyone is born with sin and a conscience to that sin…

    Im now requesting that you cite the relevant scientific papers on this discovery of this morality template…

    .

    Posted by PG | July 8, 2010, 4:30 pm
  22. Seriously, PG? Go to your university library (have you ever been to either of those things? A university or a library?) and look up Fraans de Waal,

    Or go the easy route and order this book:

    Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton Science Library)

    That’s a starting point for you. More to the point, go to any primate research archive and type in “morality.” You’ll be flooded with more than you could possibly read.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 8, 2010, 7:33 pm
  23. Hamby,

    Perhaps you need to go back to the library or university to learn the distinction between the Hard and soft sciences. (Soft being pejorative)

    First you post:
    “Scientists are happy to admit that empirical testing cannot address questions involving the objective qualities of good and evil.”

    Then you proceed to contradict yourself by misrepresenting Fraans de Waal’s work as Science “Discovered” morality in primates, when his critics within the hard sciences claim he did nothing of the sort. Today Scientists in the hard sciences still correctly critiquing and dismissing his work as pure conjecture.

    Did Fraans use empirical, quantifiable data, relying on the scientific method and focusing on accuracy and objectivity in arriving at his conclusions that primates have morals, or a moral template as you insist?

    or was it pure conjecture with no possible way to disprove his theory?

    Answer: conjecture!

    Science and more importantly, Fraans critics cannot use the scientific method to disprove fraans theory and determine exactly what the primate was thinking as it attacked a fellow primate. Therefore, His work fails as real science! Thats why I was asking you to cite EMPIRICAL evidence, for which you simply failed miserably.

    Like Humes say’s ” In science,You cannot get ought from is!”

    That is why as you first stated:

    “Scientists are happy to admit that empirical testing cannot address questions involving the objective qualities of good and evil.”

    They understand the limitations of (Hard) science, and understands what can happen when a philosopher’s imagination runs rampant and unchecked!

    BTW, I used to say that it takes too much faith to be an Atheist. Now I also think it takes too much imagination!!

    .

    Posted by PG | July 9, 2010, 12:51 am

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