NOMA No More? The Possibility of Scientific Morality

Back in April 2010 I wrote about some of the major models for relating science and religion. One option presented was the independence model, probably most famously expressed by Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). Science deals with facts, religion with morals and values, and the two sides never intersect. Gould was an atheist, so God does not exist in this model. However, religions get to stick around because they give guidance for life not found in scientific facts. Well, in February Sam Harris spoke at the 2010 TED conference where he argued a science of morality is possible. Some of the new atheists, especially Richard Dawkins, have always been uncomfortable with what they see as a free ride Gould gave to religions with NOMA, and Harris is now proposing a method for revoking their ticket.

Last week guest author Paul Zak showed that enough data is present to claim morality is at least natural, but he remained neutral on whether it is exclusively so. “Belief in God is not necessary for morality. But, I cannot disprove that an omniscient God created the universe in such a way that we would evolve oxytocin as the moral molecule. I have no way to test this so I must leave this in the “inconclusive” pile.” Lack of an experiment is no problem for Harris, though, who wants to see the scientific understanding of morality pushed to its limits. If it is possible to gather some data about morality as Zak has, is it possible to develop a complete science of morality and eliminate the role religious moral codes have traditionally played in that area?

imageThe core of Harris’ argument is that morality is associated with well-being, something that can be quantitatively studied, measured, and predicted with accuracy. Well-being could also be called happiness or human flourishing, but the point is that enough neuroscientific data exists to know that the well-being any person experiences will be a matter of their biological condition and brain-states in particular. Thus, scientists can gather such biological data which can then be used in moral decision-making. What is moral is whatever will maximize the physical conditions leading to well-being. Hitchens has given this basic example. By studying changes in brain-states and other physiological reactions, it can be determined whether monkeys suffer more than mice in test labs. If so, it is worse to run experiments on monkeys than mice. However, the scientific community does not unanimously share his optimism at the moment.

Sean Carroll, a physicist, had a relatively well-known debate with Harris via blog posts, arguing “ought” does not logically come from “is” and no amount of scientific progress can change this fact. His response to Harris has three basic components:

1. There’s no single definition of well-being. Carroll seems to defend moral relativism as at least an empirical fact. Some people have no concern for the well-being of others. There are murders, people who believe torture is morally right, and even upstanding citizens do not agree about the definition of well-being or how to reach that goal. Since everyone does not want the same thing, even if all the data Harris wants was gathered, a science capable of making reliable predictions out of that data is impossible.

2. It is not necessarily true that well-being, no matter how it is defined, should be the goal of morality. Harris sounds utilitarian or consequentialist: what matters are results, and results can be predicted. However, Kant is a famous opponent of that understanding of morality. His deontological theory holds that the highest good is found in acts necessarily good in themselves, not in acts used as means to good ends like well-being. The problem is that no experiment can force the choice for one approach over the other.

3. Well being is not something that can be aggregated across different individuals. Even if a definition of well-being was set and all accept it as the goal of morality, the interests of different people will conflict. Not every nation can have all the industry, technology, and growth desired to increase well-being because costs are always involved and resources are not unlimited. Sacrifices are always involved and one person’s heaven might necessarily create another’s hell.

I have summarized what roughly amounts to the response to each of Carroll’s points by Harris as follows:

1. Access to facts does not determine whether facts exist. Take the Library of Alexandria. Claims made about it will be objectively right or wrong depending on what was the case during its existence, even if such claims can never be verified. Or, if a tree falls in the forest and no one sees the event, it is still true that the tree falls. However, the situation is even better than these examples imply. It is not so hard to figure out who the experts with relevant information are in any given field. As Harris says to Carroll, “I assume that he can make a reasonably principled decision about whom to put on a panel at the next conference on Dark Matter without finding a neuroscientist from the year 2075 to scan every candidate’s brain and assess it for neurophysiological competence in the relevant physics.” Choosing who we listen to is not the part to be determined experimentally.

Carroll is correct that well-being refers to subjective experiences, but biological psychology is a growing field (gaining support from growing data about molecules like oxcytocin) making it capable to gather data for a science of morality. Moreover, vagueness in a term does not eliminate the possibility of gathering data relevant to its explanation. “The definition of “life” remains, to this day, difficult to pin down. Does this mean we can’t study life scientifically? No. The science of biology thrives despite such ambiguities.” And even if current methods of gathering data for a science of morality are off-base, the tree still falls in the woods, so to speak.

2. Kant was mistaken as is anyone who is not a consequentialist. The belief that moral acts are good in themselves carries an unspoken assumption that such acts will generally increase well-being in the world. Harris understands religious morality in the same way. Any moral standing they possess is due to their consequences, not about any inherent good in religion. A science of morality would eliminate any need to keep using their sanctions.

I would add my own editorial comment that this point seems to be a non-debate. A system of ethics could be arbitrarily chosen. We could still see if progress toward a science of morality within that framework is experimentally possible.

3. Not all lives are equals and we need to get over the idea that they are equivalent. This is a controversial point, but Harris is willing to be even himself on the chopping block. “I have no problem admitting that certain people’s lives are more valuable than mine – I need only imagine a person whose death would create much greater suffering and foreclose much greater happiness.” Nonetheless, public policies can still reinforce collective action under the idea that all lives are equal and people should act for the good of all. If such policies are wrong and people started behaving differently, then the world would change and the total amount of well-being could be measured. And, again, even if methods prevented accurate measurement, the tree would still fall in the woods.

As I have followed the debate it seems that most people support Carroll’s skepticism, even if they wish Harris was right. Nonetheless, Harris does not stand alone. John Shook has defended the search for “oughts” in nature against Carroll’s insistence to the contrary, and his argument involves an important insight into what “ought” and “is” mean in the natural sciences. is meant to discover facts about the natural world, including natural processes. That is, scientific inquiry reveals natural processes and how they work. What “is” involves underlying mechanisms and phenomena connected through exchange of energy. For example, physicists don’t just know the physical composition of an atom. They also know how atoms move and react with other bodies they contact. Such knowledge can get very complicated in complex organisms like animals, but is in principle the same. As knowledge about such processes increases, it becomes possible to predict events based on scientific knowledge. Through knowledge of chemistry I could tell you whether or not an explosion would occur by combining certain compounds. Basically, scientific knowledge of what “is” involves knowledge of processes, relations, and how they evolve in the future.

Such knowledge results in the ability to form what Shook calls constructive hypotheticals: “If you want to achieve A in situation B, try doing C with your available materials D. This is a proposition with four variables. Applying such constructive hypotheticals requires that you first fill in the three variables A, B, and D. When A, B, and D are set, and placed into the hypothetical proposition, science can often help with determining C – the “constructive” suggestion for what to do to get what is wanted.” What is crucial for any support for Harris to be found in Shook is that such hypotheticals are experimental. It is possible to see whether C brings about expected results. And since morality is a natural feature available for public investigation (whether or not you think God is necessary for morality, it is at least “natural” in the sense that events which we label “moral” exist in the world and are available for public study by people like Paul Zak), it can fit in a similar structure. Shook gives the following example: “If you want to achieve greater “human flourishing” in “our country,” try “adding civil rights” with your “political structure of society.” Whether adding some civil rights is moral, on this constructive model, depends on whether greater human flourishing is achieved as a result. Sounds simple and easy, right?”

Some of Carroll’s concerns and some large IFs still apply, but it seems Harris is correct that a science of morality is possible in principle. It is possible if people agree morality is dependent on well-being. It is possible if we can define the criteria of well-being. It is possible if those criteria can be measured across individuals. The test of time will answer some of these questions, but it at least appears that the possibility for morals to move in a more scientific direction is real.

The rub for some theologians will be that by looking to observable consequences a science of morals will necessarily eschew any ideas about morality being connected to supernatural realities or anything not capable of being observed in daily life. In other words, scientific morality would be completely natural, as would be expected of a science. This does not necessarily mean morality will turn into materialistic reductionism with its truths gathered from neurons, though Harris may want this. What is implied is that all parties will be open to criticism. No ideology or religion would be exempt from examination by a science of morality that would necessarily investigate and possibly change anything relating to well-being. To be a fully-developed science there could be no boundaries beyond which questions of well-being could not be asked. “God said so” would no longer be a safety device capable of protecting traditional religious sanctions.

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