A non-theist, NT, has asked Science about any moral guidance that it can offer. NT has explained that he isn’t expecting hard rules, but he is hoping for some moral guidelines that are grounded in the scientific view of the world. The topic is not a comfortable one for Science, though, and his response is crotchety.
Science: If you’re looking for me to tell you the meaning of life, as if I were some guru sitting on a mountaintop, you’ve come to the wrong place. And believe me, you don’t want scientists insisting that people should live this way or that way, because that can take you places you don’t want to go. All I can give you is what I know so far about objects like molecules and forces like gravity and how they impact each other, stuff that I can make educated guesses about and then confirm or deny with experiments.
NT: I hear you. But let me ask a question about living things. Isn’t it true that all living things try their best to stay alive under nearly all circumstances? I mean, that’s basic and obvious but it’s important.
Science: Don’t get me started. It drives me nuts when people talk about the “survival instinct” like it was something that kicks in when you’re about to drown or someone is coming at you with a knife, as if we are working on our survival only in an emergency. I’m telling you, almost everything you do is closely related to survival—well, I like the phrase “surviving and thriving” better—the “thriving” part covers having kids, which is how life keeps going. You sleep, right? You eat and drink? You stay warm, stay close to friends and family, worry about enemies or dangerous situations, like losing your job? That’s all survival. You’re creative and like good wine? That’s your brain amped-up over how to survive looking for new material to work with. Every cell in your body is working all the time on staying alive and getting all the energy it needs and staying safe. Believe me, surviving and thriving is a full-time job for you and the squirrel and the gnat and the weeds in your back yard.
NT: Thank you. I like all that. Let me show you where I think it might lead. We humans agonize and speculate a lot about purpose. It’s a gnawing question. Why are we here? What are we supposed to do with all our talent and energy, knowing our time is limited? I’m suggesting that our purpose is to survive and thrive and to help other living things do the same. I think our big brains sometimes loose touch with that. And if our purpose is to survive and thrive, that is a statement about values and morality too–being alive, sustaining life, enhancing life—any and all life, not just humans—has positive value and losing or taking life is negative, more or less bad. That’s broad and crude, but I think it’s a foundation of sorts.
Science: What you’re talking about reminds me of Aristotle, who argued that what is good is what something aims at, according to its nature, and what is positive or negative for the thing derives from that. For example, the aim of a scientist is to contribute to the accurate description of the natural world, so a good scientist is one who does that, and what is good for that scientist are things that contribute to his achieving that goal. I should add, by the way, I’m not an expert on Aristotle as a philosopher, but he himself was a hell of scientist, for his time. You should look him up.
NT: I’ll do that, thanks. And yes, he thought that the goal of humans is to flourish, to be happy, and that happiness involves the unique human function of being rational. I’m expanding all that, I suppose. Not just human nature but all of nature. Aristotle meets Darwin. But we need to talk more about the moral guidance part.
Science: Yep. And I think you’re already up to your elbows in alligators