No, You Can’t Get Morality from Science (But Science Still Has a Necessary Role)

With the recent horrific violence in Libya, and the Fundamentalist idiocy that is coming out of the election, people are again looking at Religion with a critical eye. One of the recurring stances that has returned is the notion that maybe Religion should be abandoned altogether, and maybe Science can step up to replace it as s source of morality. The idea that Science could act as a moral compass, however, is not only misguided but dangerous, as any effort to do so would water down and corrupt Science, and invoke in it the same difficulties faced by religion today. Here is why:

1) Science is not designed to speak on morality. Science is a tool designed specifically to make statements of fact based on studying only that which can be objectively defined and measured. This design is what gives science its strength, as any person can easily confirm a conclusion because it can be checked externally. Objective measurement is Science’s area of competence. Morality has a very strong internal and subjective component, and to ask Science to speak on morality is to ask it to speak outside its area of competence.

2) You can’t define morality in scientific terms. Because morality has such a strong abstract component, any attempt to treat moral concepts as concrete and positivistic structures is an act of logical fallacy known as reification. If you were to instead just try to reduce the domain of morality to the objectively observable, you would be leaving out so much information that your concept of morality loses its connection with how it appears in reality. It would lose its construct validity. For instance lets say that you decide to remove subjective concepts like motivation and intent, and look strictly at cause and effect as measures of morality. Apply them to this example:

In World War II, my friend’s grandfather was one of the American soldiers who liberated a German concentration camp. When they found the abused and emaciated victims of the camp, the GI’s started to collect their rations and the special little treats they had gotten from care packages from home, and gave them to the starving victims. The next day the Red Cross arrived and told them to stop what they were doing, but it was too late. The victims were too far gone to digest food normally, and the energy it took to digest the food was the last energy they had, killing them.

This is a true story. Medically, the only way to have helped those victims was with IV treatments until their systems could handle food. If you were to only look at the concrete and positive aspects of this story, the GI’s killed many of the victims. It’s only when you look at the subjective and abstract portions, the ideas of motivation and compassion, that the GI’s could be absolved. It’s because in this specific example, the GI’s made the correct moral choice given their subjective understanding of the time, even if objectively is was the wrong action to take.

3) Historically, Religion isn’t all bad, and Science isn’t all good. The idea that Religion and Science are mortal enemies diametrically opposed to each other is a false dichotomy that doesn’t reflect reality. First of all, there is no inherent conflict, and nor is one recognized by most scientists (here and here), and a large number of scientists are themselves religious and operate without real conflict (here is Neil Degrasse Tyson on the subject). Secondly, to deny the good that has come from religion is to deny the work done by highly religious individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi, the Quakers, etc. who fought for the abolition of slavery, social justice, and other noble cause. Likewise, to see Science as all good is to ignore many severe moral errors made in the name of science, like the eugenics movement, the monster study, the Tuskegee experiments,  etc.,  and the reality that a lot of scientific advancement has been made specifically for the purpose of war and killing (such as the atom bomb and firearm development). And honestly, such black/white, good/bad thinking is never accurate nor is it indicative of mature, healthy thinking processes.

4) The problems facing Religion today are not religious in origin, but stem from more human and socio-political sources. People point at religion as causing problems like war and violence, but actual research does not support those conclusions. Studies on the causes of war (here and here) do not show religion as actually being causal. And if you remove religion from the government, as communist nations have done, you do not see a drop in the war, violence, or prejudice. The current violence seen in the Middle East that has re-sparked this conversation was actually not a spontaneous outbreak caused by a majority religious belief as being claimed, rather it was a manipulated and planned attack started by a militant minority using a film produced by an antisocial filmmaker. So in many ways, Religion has become a red herring, and the real explanations go unseen, such as the Denial of Death argument introduced by Ernest Becker and supported by science.

5) If you try to replace Religion with Science, Science will fall into the same problems facing Religion today. As much as I would hate to repeat an argument made by South Park, it is true that since the problems that face Religion do not come from Religion but are put on Religion from more human origins, the moment that Science takes over this role, it will be subject to the same corruptions. This is not speculation, as mentioned earlier, it’s based in history.

6) The solutions lie not in choosing between Science or Religion, but respecting their domains of competence and encouraging a dialogue between them. When Religion works, it explores moralistic questions and comes to the conclusions on social justice, peace, and tolerance that society as a whole has adopted. And this is true if the religion is theistic, or atheistic (such as in many forms of Buddhism, Secular Humanism, or the beliefs practiced by my friend Shane). This is because the field of religion is largely organized around the grand question of how one interacts with others and other intelligences in the world (for more, see Davis Abrams’ The Spell of the Sensuous). This quest is an internal, subjective, and abstract journey. As such, it collapses and fails when you try to reduce it or reify it to absolute notions, such as literal interpretation of scripture. Science works because it is designed to specifically looks at concrete facts and observable cause and effect relationships. It fails when it tries to deal with the abstract. When one tries to replace the other, it falls into error because it begins to speak outside of its competence. The better solution would be a cooperative conversation, where Religion asks Science to test the practical application of moral theories, and Science uses the moral conclusions to protect against abuses. For instance, if Religion is trying to decide between competing theories like a literal interpretation of Genesis, or a more thematic and symbolic interpretation, it should look to Science to see what the facts support. Likewise, if Science is attempting to decide if a certain line of research needs to be followed, like human vivisection, it can ask what moral rules have already been found to be true and are applicable in this decision.

Now admittedly, Religion has violated this spirit of cooperative communication more than Science, but that is because Science has not been allowed the free reign Religion has had. For instance, most research today has to pass and IRB process that screens the experiment for any possible abusive practices, so morality derived externally is applied to Science in current practice. Making Science out to be a moral compass will remove this external constraint, in essence, it would be like asking large banking institutions to write their own regulatory laws, it would just lead to collapse. The problems Religion has are because it does not always respect these boundaries of competence. Should you try to make Science a sole source of morality, it will suffer the same problems.


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