31 October 2006

Towards a Science of Ethics

This post was stimulated by an email from Ollie Killngback:

I'm away on holiday in Texas at the moment ... From my privileged position on the buckle of the Bible Belt (Irving Texas, where I am in order to watch a crucial game for the Cowboys on Monday night) I found the following item in the Dallas Morning News which I thought might be of interest to students of Christian ethics ...

It's from the 2006 Josephson Institute Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth. 94% of teens surveyed said "trust and honesty are essential" in the workplace. 89% said "being a good person is more important than getting rich." However, 59% overall and almost 66.67% of boys said that, in business, successful people have to do whatever they can to get ahead, even if that means cheating.

Somehow I can't make the sums add up.

My response to this was:

Surely the explanation is obvious. When they answered the first two questions they were practising the ethics they advocate in the other answer!

Here's a link to the Josephson Institute report.

Coincidentally I've been reading George H. Smith Atheism: The Case Against God (which is in our LSS Library). It has a short section on ethics. He writes: "I shall defend the thesis that ethics, while a branch of philosophy, is also a kind of science, specifically, the science of human values."

He bases his approach on that of Ayn Rand in her 'Objectivist' writings, quoting her as saying: "The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all - and why?" also: "It is only the concept of Life that makes the concept of Value possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or bad."

Many philosophers (for example the early 20th century logical positivists) have denied any meaning to value judgments, other than expressing personal opinions. However, Smith points out that many sciences other than ethics employ 'ought' judgments, medicine and architecture for example. He distinguishes between descriptive sciences which are concerned with "pure" facts and theories and normative sciences which "are concerned with those facts and theories as they apply to human goals.

An example of a normative judgment is: 'A doctor ought to do X if he wants to cure his patient.' A few quotes: A normative science is only as good as the facts on which it rests. Ethics deals with the facts of value as they apply to human action and the achievement of human goals. A rational morality is based on standards; a religious morality on rules. In rational morality there can be no 'ought' divorced from purpose. Ethics enables man to project the long-range consequences of his actions, and to evaluate the desirability of specific actions in terms of their effect on long-range goals.

[This is topical in view of the current fever of activity over the politics of global warming and climate change: definitely a long-term problem.]

To continue: "... a valid science of human values must be rooted in the nature of man as a biological and psychological organism." What conclusions the science of ethics comes to must thus depend on what are the true facts of human psychology. To this end he often quotes another follower of Ayn Rand (who fell out with her however): Nathaniel Branden: The Psychology of Self-Esteem. However in Psychology Today's Loose-screw awards his ideas are classed as "the most over-rated". However he is also listed among those influential in the development of Cognitive Psychology, which seems to be the modern most scientific approach.

25 October 2006

The War of Faith and Reason

There is a rule on internet discussion boards, sometimes called Godwin's Law, that the argument has irretrievably broken down once an analogy with the second world war is brought in, as signalled usually by the name of Hitler. This has now happened in the arguments against creationism and religion.

The philosopher Michael Ruse seems to have been the one to first bring in the analogy, but it has been amplified by Richard Dawkins in his new book The God Delusion, where he accuses those evolutionists who wish to concentrate their attack on the creationists as being of the "Chamberlain School", whereas those who think that this is only a battle and the real war is the much wider one between reason and superstition constitute the "Churchill School". He doesn't actually use the name of Churchill in this way in his book but he does do so in his blog on the huffington post. I fear this is a strategic mistake.

Analogy is a dangerous method of reasoning. It is favoured in Islamic Law for a start! It is a form of rhetoric, and it is seldom scientific. Ruse's original ruse was to compare the non-creationist religionists with communists, with the idea that we need to have an alliance with them against the creationist "nazis". This is a plausible analogy, but Dawkins' version of it just doesn't work. Chamberlain tried to appease the nazis, not the communists. The real Churchillian strategy is war against the fundamentalists and cold war against religion.

The fight against creationism in the science classroom is a fight on an extremely narrow front. The creationists at "Lies in Pseudoscience" are analogous to shock troops. The religious "nasties" come from a much wider constituency. For instance those opposed to stem cell research, or to the use of condoms against the spread of AIDs, or to abortion on any grounds, are not just evangelicals, but include many mainstream religionists.

The BCSE (British Centre for Science Education) is trying to concentrate on the battle against creationists, specificaly in the science classroom. In so doing their policy is to try to keep the ordinary christians on-side by deliberately avoiding arguments with them (for instance, arguments that "faith is contrary to reason" - I've had a message on that deleted from their discussion forum).

There are indeed prominent anti-creationists who are religious believers, notably Kenneth Miller who was one of the principal witnesses (for the evolutionists) at the Dover trial.

Miller's view of God is not very clear to me (or to him it seems), but in the
concluding section of his book Darwin's God (this section is available on
his website) he writes: "As more than one scientist has said, the truly remarkable thing about the world is that it actually does make sense. The parts fit, the molecules interact, the darn thing works. To people of faith, what evolution says is that nature is complete. Their God fashioned a material world in which truly free and independent beings could evolve. He got it right the very first time."

This is a version of the anthropic argument: that the design parameters of the
universe seem to have been set so that human beings could evolve. Dawkins follows the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, and others in accepting the "multiple universes" explanation of the anthropic principle, though many rationalists (myself included) would say that this is just as bad as the theological explanation, since it badly violates Ockham's Razor (especially if there are an infinity of universes!). I prefer to think that the universe is the way it is either because that is the
only way it can be, or because it has evolved to be that way, as Lee Smolin
plausibly conjectured in The Life of the Cosmos.

I find it difficult to understand how an evolutionist like Miller can retain belief in a god of this type, who must have been a complex entity to have conceived the creation, so where did this god come from in the first place? Was it the product of an earlier evolution? And is it still about, to interfere in the progress of its creation? Miller doesn't say what he believes in this regard.

Miller defines God vaguely as "truth, love and knowledge" (how can abstract qualities like this be a creator?) and says that "True knowledge comes only from a combination of faith and reason." He says that "What science cannot do is assign either meaning or purpose to the world it explores." Implying that "faith" can do so. "In biological terms, evolution is the only way a Creator could have made us the creatures we are - free beings in a world of authentic and meaningful moral and spiritual choices" and: "Evolution explains our biology, but it does not tell us what is good, or right, or moral." This is what he sees "faith" as telling us.

But none of this explains what exactly "faith" is and why it should be any better in finding purpose and moral guidance in life and the universe than reason does. It is important for the "moderate religionists", like Miller, and like Michael Roberts and others at Ekklesia for instance, to explain how they reconcile faith and reason, as they claim to be able to do, and not just avoid the argument.

This is the challenge for the future of religious or spiritual belief. It must make its peace with science and reason. If there is genuine meaningful content in religion (and I'm sure there is) it must be put onto a rational foundation, and not separate itself off from reason behind the "nomic" wall of non-overlapping magisteria. Perhaps the true religion is the science of love.

19 October 2006

Pale Blue Dot from Beyond Saturn

Our member Ollie Killngback sends the following great contribution:

This link is to a photograph taken recently by the Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn. It's amazingly lit, as the Sun is hidden by the giant planet but it's rings catch the light.

Just above the main rings to the left there is a single light dot, just a pixel or two on your screen. Everything that has ever happened to the human race happened on that dot. It's Earth.

This perspective is the kind of thing that makes it impossible for me both to do anything but marvel at the wonder of the Universe, and also to be incredulous that anyone can think that anything that happens on that dot matters. From this view of our planet the idea that what we wear (as some religions think) or what we eat (as some others do) or how we copulate (as some others do) is of any importance to anyone except the persons involved is patently ridiculous. That we have ostracised, imprisoned, tortured and even killed people (in great numbers) on behalf of such beliefs (and look like continuing to do so for decades to come) is obscene.

Ollie K

06 October 2006


Two recent news items have triggered off some slight thoughts on psychology.

First there was Dr Bruce Hood, of the University of Bristol, speaking at the
British Association festival in Norwich, who challenged the assumption that belief in the supernatural was spread by religions in gullible minds. "Rather, religions may simply capitalise on a natural bias to assume the existence of supernatural forces" he said. "It is pointless trying to get people to abandon their belief systems because they operate at such a fundamental level that no amount of rational evidence or counter evidence is going to be taken on board to get people to abandon these ideas."

The story was reported as "religion will never die" in both the
Telegraph and the Times.

On his claim that people "recoil from artefacts linked to evil as if they are pervaded by a physical essence", it seems to me that this is a projection of his own received religious thinking. I say that the old idea of "association of ideas" is an adequate explanation, and the recoil a rational one, since it helps to keep ideas in our minds apart, distinct, and in useful order.

Second there was Richard Dawkins's interview with Jeremy Paxman in which he expressed his bafflement at how some scientists could be christian believers. He thought they must somehow be able to keep their science and religion in different compartments.

I wonder instead if the problem is that they do not keep their science and religion in different compartments. Many religious thinkers, and some secular ones, place a lot of emphasis on "integrity" or "integration" or "oneness" or "wholeness" and so on. But logical thinking depends on splitting things up into clearly separate parts. One result of this desire for "unity" is the profusion of paradoxical statements that issue from the mouths of mystics. One classic is the Zen notion of "the sound of one hand clapping".

Mary Midgley in a review in the New Scientist of Dawkins' new book The God Delusion cites the scientist Freeman Dyson describing himself as "one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much for the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels". But what then is a "Christian"? The term becomes meaningless. She says, referring also to statements by Einstein: "Dawkins declares flatly that they cannot mean what they say." I think they do mean what they say, but it has no meaning, it just expresses a euphoric feeling of paradoxical oneness.

Stephen J. Gould famously advocated that religion and science are "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA). But this would considerably reduce the scope of religion by barring it from many areas in which it traditionally treads. And future scientific developments, for instance in neuroscience, are likely to delimit its domain much further. It is in any case unclear where the boundaries between religion, ethics and philosophy lie. Much that used to be the domain of philosophy is now science.