Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Science is Essential to Morality

In my last post, I asked the question, can science tell us what we ought to do. My short answer there was “not really.” I’d like to elaborate and modify that answer. Science is a far better method for answering all of the questions that concern human flourishing than any other approach we have, including religion.

Consider this question: What are the valuable questions to have answered in our efforts to live a good life? And once we have a sense of what these questions are, let’s think about the different approaches we might have to answering them. Here are a number of candidates in no particular order:

How can I live longer?
What will make me healthy?
Which vices am I prone to?
Which virtues are the hardest to obtain?
What are the best methods for achieving virtues and avoiding vices?
Which cognitive practices are best for cultivating happiness and fulfillment?
What sorts of lifestyle choices will produce the most happiness and fulfillment?
What sort of education and treatment will be most effective in my children’s education?
What sorts of treatment and what kind of parenting will do my children the most good? The most harm?
What are the best ways to discourage criminal behavior in myself and others?
What are the relative harms of various behaviors?
What are the benefits of various behaviors?
What sorts of social environments are most conducive to human flourishing?
Which social circumstances are the most detrimental to human flourishing?
What sorts of social relationships do humans need in order to flourish?
What are the most effective means for avoiding and defeating addictions?
What sorts of choices are most effective at preventing addiction?
If we seek to improve the lives of others, where are our efforts most productively directed?
What are the dangers of technological innovations?
How can we best prevent and treat disease?
How can we rectify famines, plagues, droughts, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters?
How can we build the best infrastructure for human societies?
What sorts of job pursuits, and working conditions are most conducive to human flourishing?
What are the best methods for establishing public safety?
What are the best methods for education?
What are the most effective methods for rectifying inequalities and bias?
What are the best methods for eliminating human pain and suffering?
What makes humans sick?
Which treatments can cure them?
Which are the best medical treatments?
What harms does poverty do to humans?
How much alcohol is good for humans?
Is smoking a healthy habit?
Do drugs do harms to people?
What are those harms?
Which methods of birth control work?
What sort of family structure and family relationships are most conducive to human satisfaction and success?
What are the differences between people’s perceptions of the truth and the truth?
What are the best methods for achieving mental well-being?
What are the negative and/or positive effects on humans of environmental factors such as air, water, and noise pollution?
Which political systems achieve the high degree of human freedom, fulfillment, and happiness?
What are the effects of various features of an economic system on the welfare of the humans in it?

It seems to me that science is vastly better qualified and demonstratively successful at giving us answers to all of these questions whereas religion fails horribly, or just has nothing to say about most of them. What resources are available to the Christian religion, for instance, for addressing these questions? The Bible is a collection of scattered writings from a variety of Iron Age authors that contains some opinions about some of these matters. But as the idiosyncratic views of just a few under-informed writers from pre-industrial, agrarian cultures, they are of limited use and often just flatly mistaken. Personal, anecdotal opinions about empirical matters are notoriously unreliable, even when these opinions come from wise, experienced sources. We won’t take seriously the claim that the views about these matters in the Bible can be trusted because the authors are channeling some infallible divine source. There are far too many gaps, confusions, contradictions, and flat out mistakes for that to be true. If the Bible authors got their information from some supernatural source, that source has proven himself to be highly unreliable. The musings of a church leader, or the recommendations from a pastor’s sermon aren’t much better since they too are subjective, biased, and anecdotal.

But carefully constructed, double-blinded clinical trials on medications, or large scale, objective analyses of data from scientific investigations give us real, accurate answers. When we gather large amounts of data with methods that are designed to prevent filtering and bias, and then when we evaluate that data actively looking for disconfirmations of a hypothesis using the established principles of sound empirical research, we do a far better job at getting at the truth than any other method.

If you care about human well-being, including your own, it is hard to imagine a single topic where science is not prepared to give you a better answer that is based on the facts. And what is a moral system if it doesn’t take the well-being of humans or sentient beings as its central aim?

Science is absolutely central to informing us about what we ought to do.


CybrgnX said...

The problem is the nature of the question. Religion is NOT about quality of life because all the religions are about death. The 'soul' is all important and what will happen after death.
There is exactly 0% proof that there is a life after death but that is immaterial because that is what is believed. When looks from this point(as if it is TRUE) then the religious answers are the only good answers.
Of course the above is pure BS. As religion is really about political power of the few over the many. But you can't get the many to think straight because the happy delusion is preferred to the unpleasant truth in their eyes.
It is sad but the only cure is to wait for them to die off without infecting too many before the event.

Anonymous said...

too much talking, looking at the bible yes, what you are saying is true, but is christianity the only relegion out there, did you look some where else?

Anonymous said...

science can not and will not explain everything

Anonymous said...

Remember, when you start possessing the woman or the man, you are killing – you are putting the flower in the safe-deposit box. And you rush to the court to get married; you are making it a legal thing. Love dies when law comes in. Love cannot exist with law. Love is lawlessness. Love is so spontaneous, how can it exist with law? It is impossible. Love has disappeared from the earth because there is too much law. Unless law disappears from the earth, there is no possibility for love to appear again. And without love there is no possibility of prayer. And without love there is no possibility for God.
Religion does not consist of laws. It consists only of one thing, and that is love.

Anonymous said...

You go to a doctor and if you have any disease he can diagnose it in a very clearcut way. He can diagnose if you have TB or cancer or this and that; a thousand and one diseases. But if you are healthy, he has nothing to diagnose. In fact medical science has nothing to define what health is. At the most they can say that you are not ill, but they cannot be very definite about what health is. Health remains undefined. It is so big that no category is big enough. It cannot be pigeon-holed. Happiness is bigger than health. Health is happiness of the body. Happiness is health of the soul.

Anonymous said...

If something is real, it is going to be confusing because the real is so vast that it contains contradictions. And if something is very clear, beware! -- it is going to be something false. Mathematics is very clear. The most clearcut science is mathematics because it is completely man-oriented. If man disappears, mathematics will disappear. It is just a man-manufactured thing. It is clear. It is from man, it is from the mind. It is the most clearcut science in the world because it is the most bogus science. It corresponds to no reality. It is simply symbolic, just in the mind. But if you seek reality, you will find it very confusing. You love a man and you find that you also hate him. It is very confusing and books don't say that. They say if you love a man, you love him; you never hate him. But that's philosophy. If you love a man, you hate him also. If you are happy with a man, you are also unhappy with him. Otherwise with whom are you going to be unhappy? Books say that when you love a man, you love. When you are happy with a man, you are always happy. That is nonsense. It is not a real thing; it is just a concept. Reality is chaotic. It is wild... it is very stormy.

BallBounces said...

Practical medical science is predicated on a belief in design, function, and purpose -- all of which are denied under darwinian, materialistic, atheistic assumptions.

The darwinist cannot say that the heart is designed, or has a purpose, or a proper function. If he does, he's cheating, importing the language of teleology. He can only say, this is what is, this is what nature has spewed out -- it's neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, proper or improper.

Nor can a darwinist say that a heart is normal vs. abnormal, properly functioning vs. malfunctioning, working as it is supposed to, etc. because the heart was never designed and has no purpose or function; it just "is".

Nor can a darwinist or materialistic atheist say that cancer cells are bad -- they are just another manifestation of nature, and nature is neither good nor bad, it just is.

A person may be a confessing atheist, but, when it comes to actually living life, he invariably lives it as if theism -- design, purpose, intent, etc. -- were true.

And, I wouldn't make too much of science. Science can tell you the protein value of eating another human being; it can't tell you if or why it is wrong to do so (as long as it is well-cooked).

Matt McCormick said...

Dude, you need to read some philosophy of science. The Darwinist is perfectly entitled to use teleological language without contradiction. Or put another way, there's no reason we can't use teleology in the absence of a magical super being who is responsible. That's no more problematic than saying that rocks want to roll down hill. Or do you think that commits us to attributing minds to rocks?

BallBounces said...

The fact that a darwinist feels compelled to use the language of teleology means that there is something very odd indeed about the universe. It wasn't designed, it isn't designed, things just "happen", and that is it -- and yet darwinists either are unwilling or unable to provide a scientific description of this "happening" without recourse to the language of design

I guess, like indwelling moral sense -- the absurd notion that some things are right, other things are wrong, it's just another one of those weird quirks of mindless evolution -- wire humans to perceive and think and speak and live of design, where in fact there is and can be none.

It's another one of the absurdities of the human condition that exist if God doesn't. But, I suppose that fits darwinism in a way -- one would not expect the universe to be rational, or for human perceptions about the universe to match the way it really is in a universe just slopped together by an unthinking, amoral, utterly purposeless process.

On the other hand, all the existential absurdities of the human condition -- moral sense, design predisposition, purposeful, meaning, values, etc. etc. become perfectly reasonable, rational and understandable once one understands that there is indeed a Creator, and we are indeed a creation.

I think there is a stubborn resistance to this idea that extends beyond mere honest rational thinking.

Matt McCormick said...

All of these so-called anomalies have been explained in Darwinian terms over and over--You're attacking a straw man. See Sober, De Waal, Tooley, Dawkins, Gould, Dennett, Kitcher, Bechtel, Bedau, Cummins, Godfrey-Smith, even Plantinga, Papineau, and so on.

Secondly, it's a deep misunderstanding of the theory of natural selection to characterize it as "Things just happen," for no reason, or at random. This straw version has been corrected so many times that I have to conclude that you haven't bothered to find out what the theory of natural selection is, or your deliberately misrepresenting it.

BallBounces said...

Thank you for the references -- it is good of you to provide these. I'm familiar with less than half of the authors you cite, but remain convinced that teleological language and darwinism are incompatible. By "things just happen" I mean some live, some die -- there is no purpose and no selection. E.g., natural processes did not "select" the earth for life and not mars. The term selection implies some kind of mind at work (and there is some evidence that darwin thought of nature in this way), where, according to the materialist, there is none.

Bitter Chill said...

Ball, you are out to lunch. Wish I could tell you on your own site, but I don’t want to register just to tell you that you are bunkfull. Thanks for this link. Its nice to call you out where you don’t have the power to censor people

Your semantic arguments about the use of the words “designed” and “purpose” are rather elementary. The shorthand offered us by the limits of the English language in no way prove the existence of your imaginary sky friend, nor do they pose any problem to the demonstrated facts of evolutionary biology. It also implies that the English language somehow “belongs” to your theology, when history suggests your theology was developed by Middle Eastern goat herders a couple of thousand years before modern English developed on the other side of a continent.

As for your complete misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution, reducing it to complete randomness. I have to concur with Matt and say you are talking out of your ass. There is a random element to genetic changes, but “Natural Selection” is in no way random, and no one seriously suggests it is (strawman much?).

As for your mental masturbation over on your own page about the source of “morality”, this is also an area discussed at length by greater minds than yours, and it seems much less of a paradox for them. What is your morality? People don’t eat their young. Of course, neither do bears, chickens, or caterpillars. (Most) Christians pair-bond for life, (some) Moslems live in polygamous relationships. Geese pair-bond for life, frogs don’t. Who is more moral? Soldier ants willingly die to protect the community, but also keep other ants as slaves. Some people willingly die for their communities, we call them heroes and hold them up as examples of morality, just as we used to hold the keeping of slaves as moral. Of course, now we don’t. So if your morality comes from your perfect Deity, why is it so amendable?

Richard Carrier said...

Matt, a colleague of mine just tipped me off to your website. I have been kicking against the goad for years trying to get more professional philosophers to acknowledge what you defend here: that moral facts exist and can be discovered by science.

I can't recall if we've met (I've spoken in Sacramento several times for atheist community groups), or if you're aware of my work. But if you would do me the favor of reading my book Sense and Goodness without God and commenting on the merits of the case I lay out there for a syncretist model of secular moral realism, I would appreciate it greatly. If you are willing to do that, I will gladly send you a free copy (email me an address: In it I address both Hume's and Moore's arguments against our project, and employ the recent anthology Moral Discourse and Practice as well as some of the recent published science of happiness.

If you don't already know, you can find out more about me via my blog (just follow my avatar), which also links to my website. But for a precis of my argument, there is a video of a talk I gave on this subject (stripped of all the qualifications and scholarly references and other details, but giving the gist of my case) that you can access here.

If you like where I'm going with this, then please take a look at my book, and if you are pleased enough with that (we needn't agree on every point), let's try to find more professional philosophers thinking like us and coordinate, so we don't all feel like lone wolfs against the establishment!

Anonymous said...

Science is a method, nothing more nothing less

Morals are within the realm of value theory

Merry Xmas Dr. Mac


Bowling4Mac said...

It's wrong to state that Science is "essential" to morality. It plainly is not. This appears to be a very an extremely pro-science argument rather than a pro-rationality or pro-scepticism way of thinking.

The more satisfactory arguments is that neither science nor religion are prerequisites for morality. Morality is intrinsic not only to human beings but other complex animals. Morality existed long before the creation of scientific research and, I'm sure, before organised religion.

You don't have to be a brain surgeon to realise that humans are built with a moral conscience. I just don't think its helpful in the debate to try and link morality to science somehow. I understand that all you are saying is that science can help us carry out our good moral intentions but those intentions need to be there in the first place. If those good intentions are not there and instead there are intentions to do harm then science can conversely be used to cause harm.

If you are also suggesting that the progress of Science is steadily making us a more morally good race I would also take issue because we all know that the theists will immediately point to all the recent wars and they have a point.

It amuses me that the pro-religious side are increasingly willing to engage in the morality debate. I like to think that it signifies a shift in thinking in the average person towards the pro-sceptic view point. In religious-atheist debates the morality card always seems to be played by the pro-religious person late on in the debate when they feel a bit bogged down by all the straight-forward and easily understandable rationalisations coming from the other side. A morality argument from the religious side always sounds like a "yes I know religion is all non-sense but what about its good moral influence" statement.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks, Bowling. Knowledge of what humans are is essential to morality. Science is necessary to acquire knowledge of what humans are. Therefore, science is essential to morality. I think the point I'm making is so obvious, it's trivial. Someone who disagrees should try to live for a day without any of the benefits or knowledge that science has provided us with.

Anonymous said...

Your blogs are always interesting to read Matt. What about Astrology :-D

Matt McCormick said...


ildi said...

DM is a spammer.

Anonymous said...

Bowling said this:
"I understand that all you are saying is that science can help us carry out our good moral intentions but those intentions need to be there in the first place. If those good intentions are not there and instead there are intentions to do harm then science can conversely be used to cause harm."

Matt McCormick responded with this:
"Thanks, Bowling. Knowledge of what humans are is essential to morality. Science is necessary to acquire knowledge of what humans are. Therefore, science is essential to morality. I think the point I'm making is so obvious, it's trivial. Someone who disagrees should try to live for a day without any of the benefits or knowledge that science has provided us with. "

I understand and agree with Bowling. I am not sure I understand what Matt is saying.

What do you mean we need to understand what humans are? Do we need to strictly define what it means to be human e.g., is a zygote is human? I doubt you mean that.

Or are you saying we have to be self conscious? Aware of what we are? Are you saying just by being self conscious we are doing science?

Do you think there was ever a time when a human was not doing science? If so do you think it was impossible that they were acting morally?