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Rational Morality

November 15, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I recently listened to a discussion on the topic of whether science can be a source of morality. In fact it went beyond that to more general subjects involving science, religion and moral philosophy. The participants were impressive: no less than Lawrence Krauss (foundation professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, a professor in the physics department, and director of the Origins Project in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University), Simon Blackburn (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Philosophy, and Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina), Sam Harris (neuroscientist, non-fiction writer, and CEO of Project Reason), and Steven Pinker (Harvard College Professor, and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University).

So yes, these people have a few clues on the subject and the discussion was really fascinating. Sam Harris, as expected, had the most extreme ideas which clearly went beyond what the others were prepared to say, but I think he had some good points and I agree with just about everything he said. Of course Harris and I share a dislike of religion and I think we both believe it has no real place in modern society.

There was a discussion of the embryonic stem cell issue in the USA. There was the suggestion that there are two sides: on one side scientific facts, and on the other morals. But the morals in question weren’t really morals; they were religious dogma, superstition, and ignorance. So the argument isn’t really about morality at all, it’s really about facts versus superstition. If anything other than religion had been the basis of that so-called “morality” it would have immediately been discredited but, as is often the case, religion gets special treatment even though it clearly doesn’t deserve any.

The next question was can science influence values? Clearly it can and it has done in the past and continues to do so. Values change with time (which is an interesting point for those who claim they are based on the wishes of a god) and science is the major force of change in our society (there is debate on that point but I think many people would agree). So obviously science influences values and what is morality except a higher and more fundamental form of values?

Here’s a good old question which has been around a while: where does faith come in science? Does science rely on faith? Many believers seem to think so and even Harris says it requires the presumption that the world is accessible to experiment (in other words what we objectively experience is real). But that’s not really faith. I prefer to use the word “confidence” in those situations. Science has confidence that its methodology works because it has been an outstanding success for hundreds of years. Religion has faith that its doctrines are true despite all the evidence to the contrary. There is a big difference and anyone who equates the two concepts is either being deliberately misleading or is confused about the distinction.

All reasonable people agree that religion has nothing really to say on matters of fact, apart from a few stories based on actual history, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be an important source of morality, does it? Well I guess not but I would rate it at best as no better than many other sources: pop culture, fiction, and common sense, for example. And I would rate it greatly below more credible sources such as philosophy and science. After all, how can a belief system so obviously based on untrue myths be taken seriously on any topic?

Another discussion involved whether beliefs, opinions and attitudes can be changed by scientific facts. Many people would be rather pessimistic about this, especially when statistics indicate a large percentage of Americans believe in self evidently ridiculous ideas such as creationism. But it was pointed out that attitudes have changed greatly, especially since the Enlightenment. There was some discussion about whether this was because of science or because of new cultural and philosophical ideas such as empiricism but this is just an argument over definitions, especially since empiricism is such a fundamental component of science.

So change can and will happen but it will take time. It’s often through new generations taking on new ideas rather than existing believers having their minds changed that major revisions in belief happen. That’s why the creationists are so desperate to have their lies taught in schools, and why many scientific organisations are fighting it.

But despite the absurd and rather surprising level of belief in Christian mythology in the US those ideas are dying. However high the numbers of believers in the US today they aren’t as great as they were in the past and in other countries religion is only a minority belief and most of the believers don’t take fundamentalism seriously anyway (I do concede that the obvious rise in extreme Islamic fundamentalism is contrary to this trend).

Harris says that science impacts o religion because it demonstrates the way the world really works. Even the Vatican has been forced to accept the truth science has shown although it seems to be contrary to Catholic dogma. Of course they have just retreated to slightly less extreme forms of superstition instead: evolution is real but it is guided by God. If they really believe that they must think their god is a real idiot because his use of evolution (99% of species becoming extinct, extremely poor design of various organs, etc) sure looks arbitrary to me!

Harris denies that the opposite happens: that religion affects science. I don’t know whether that is strictly true but it might as well be. Have a look back at the history of human knowledge: there have been a huge number of religious beliefs which have been replaced with scientific alternatives but has there been a single scientific theory which has been replaced with a religious dogma or belief? There have been none that I can think of, so religion doesn’t affect science that way. Maybe more to the point, religion doesn’t affect truth!

I do agree that religion does affect science through other means such as society, politics, and culture, but these are peripheral issues to the fundamental purpose of science which is to establish the objective truth.

So in summary I would say that science can, and does, affect morality. It’s not the only source of moral information and religion has a clear role there too, but only because religion has subsumed some philosophy (such as the golden rule) and has established some rules through simple common sense. Unfortunately religion also contributes silly rules intended to maintain the power of the church. So if religion’s input to morality disappeared we would be better off but I don’t think we could say the same for science.

Whatever some people think about the morality of the current generation I think the facts speak for themselves: overall people do have better lives, most of them are more free from political and religious oppression, and generally people treat each other better now than in the past. As the world gets less religious it gets better. That must be more than a simple coincidence!

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