Field of Science

Can morality be scientific? News from "Beyond Belief"

Well, the "Beyond Belief" meeting has been and gone, and while we wait for the videos to be posted details are a bit thin. Pharyngula says that it was all very interesting, but a bit of a mish-mash. The New Scientist's report on the meeting (available on the Think Humanism forum), has a few gems. Apparently, the meeting was less stridently atheist than last year:
Last year's event was something of an "atheist love fest" said some, who urged a more wide-ranging discourse this time round. While all present agreed that rational, evidence-based thinking should always be the basis of how we live our lives, it was also conceded that people are irrational by nature, and that faith, religion, culture and emotion must also be recognised as part of the human condition.
The New Scientist also gives this gem, on the limitations of reason:
The first firebrand is lobbed into the audience by Edward Slingerland, an expert on ancient Chinese thought and human cognition at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. "Religion is not going away," he announced. Even those of us who fancy ourselves rationalists and scientists, he said, rely on moral values - a set of distinctly unscientific beliefs.

Where, for instance, does our conviction that human rights are universal come from? "Humans' rights to me are as mysterious as the holy trinity," he told the audience at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. "You can't do a CT scan to show where humans' rights are, you can't cut someone open and show us their human rights," he pointed out. "It's not an empirical thing, it's just something we strongly believe. It's a purely metaphysical entity."
Slingerhand's pronouncement has Larry Moran spitting:
Oops. I've got news for you, Prof. Slingerland, you can't count yourself as a rationalist if you think that morality requires religion. And you can't lay claim to being a scientist if you think that moral values are unscientific.
Slingerland makes a valid point, but unfortunately illustrates it with a gross misconception. As I posted earlier, just because just because something is intangible doesn't mean it isn't scientific. The mind exists - although you can't do an autopsy on it. Language similarly doesn't exist in any physical sense, yet is certainly open to scientific investigation. Information and concepts such as these exist only insofar as the physical, natural world exists. They depend on the existence of a physical reality, they are products of that physical reality, and they can be investigated empirically.

But Prof Moran is being unfair. Moral psychology is a bona fide science, no doubt about that. But moral judgments (and non-empirically justified concepts such as human rights)are frequently non scientific. It's not simply that people use intuition rather than careful analysis (although that often happens too). Rather, these a decisions that cannot be made by recourse to science - they cannot be decided empirically. That's because they rely on subjective judgments regarding values (e.g. how much is a human life worth? How much risk are we willing to take?). Science can inform these decisions, but cannot dictate them. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a concrete examples:
Consider questions regarding “normal functioning” in mental health care: Are the answers to these questions statistical, or evaluative? For example, is “normal” mental health simply the psychological condition of most people, or is it good mental health? If the former, the issue is, at least in principle, empirically decidable; if the latter, the issues must be decided, if they can be decided, by arguments about value.
This is a fundamental dichotomy that is often forgotten by science enthusiasts!

Edit: A video of Edward Slingerhand's talk is available, so you can judge for yourself.

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to the video of Peter Atkins talk about "the obstructionist rubbish of philosophy and the coming full dominion of science."

    Also good to see Dan Dennett at Beyond Belief 2 after his major heart operation a year ago.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS