One of the spiritual needs that people have is the desire for moral guidance. Organized religions have been the source of such guidance for centuries. Today, a question is, can modern science provide it also?
The debate is in full swing. Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues in this TED talk that through science, we have factual knowledge about the wellbeing of conscious creatures, and those facts are the basis for moral values. We can reach valid generalizations about such moral values, while acknowledging that exceptions will exist. We know, for example, that most people do not thrive under certain conditions, such as living under the Taliban. We can conclude on the basis of factual information that the Taliban’s dictates are morally wrong. Unfortunately, Harris argues, we are reluctant to make such judgments of another culture. Cultural relativism rears its head: “The Taliban have their own ways of seeing and doing things, we can’t impose our beliefs on them.” For Harris, such restraint is misguided; “cultures can care about the wrong things,” he says.
Cosmologist Sean Carroll argues that the exact nature of morality as well as how to maximize the wellbeing that people derive from it are not within the realm of empirical study. People simply have different views of what constitutes wellbeing; a libertarian might want to increase wellbeing by increasing personal freedom, a utilitarian might prefer an increase in some other measure of happiness. We can’t set up experiments to settle such issues. And if we can’t settle an issue with experiments, says Carroll, the issue is not within the realm of science. We can use science, especially neuroscience, to help refine our moral judgments, but we cannot found morality on science.
I prefer Harris’s position over Carroll’s not because I think the issue has been settled but largely out of optimism that the description of the world that science provides can have a positive moral influence despite plenty of questions. For me the key issue, though, is a little broader and more tentative than the topic that Harris and Carroll are debating. Harris’s talk is titled: Science can answer moral questions. I would frame the issue this way: in what ways can the scientific description of the world provide moral guidance?
The best way I can explain that question, I find, is to imagine a dialogue between Science and an educated non-theist. So here goes:
Science will try to respond in my next post.