January 10, 2013
Why Science Still Cannot Answer Moral Questions
Sam Harris has spent a great deal of effort writing books and preparing seminars in order to present a case that science can offer an objective basis for human morality. An anonymous atheist posting comments at my blog for a number of days has been attempting to prove the same thing. The belief that science can answer all the important questions in life is called Scientism, and secular atheists seem to be a bit desperate at times to try and prove that this view is true.
The myth of Scientism
The belief in Scientism and scientific morality seems to underscore one of the great hopes of atheist secular humanists. Perhaps there is a deep gut-felt conviction that objective moral standards do exist, and they sense the need to address this intuition with regard to Atheism. What is ironic, however, is that the deep conviction that objective moral values exist, coupled with the utter lack of evidence that materialistic science can validate an objective moral standard, ultimately helps to prove God's existence.
Let's begin the discussion by acknowledging that immorality does exist, even within "objective" scientific circles. Natural News pointed out, "Though it barely received any media attention at the time, a renowned British biochemist who back in 1998 exposed the shocking truth about how genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) cause organ damage, reproductive failure, digestive dysfunction, impaired immunity, and cancer, among many other conditions, was immediately fired from his job, and the team of researchers who assisted him dismissed from their post within 24 hours from the time when the findings went public."
This example demonstrates that there is a need to take scientific data with a grain of salt, because one never knows where objective facts end and where human corruption begins with respect to the results of "objective" scientific studies. But this is not a major point. Now that we've taken note an example of corruption in science, let's consider the science of corruption, or, rather, the science of morality.
Sam Harris' moral theory
Let's consider Sam Harris' argument, that objective facts about real conditions determine objective moral values about human lives. The basis of Harris' main thesis on morality according to his TED event, is this: There is a difference in our empathy between living things and non-living things, therefore, this informs the basis of an objective moral system. For example, we don't feel any moral obligation towards a rock, but we do towards living things such as dogs. Sam Harris is correct in stating that we do have real feelings that are tangible and objective, however, his moral view must ultimately be based upon a subjective interpretation of what those feelings mean in terms of concrete values and a system of morality. And this is where Harris has failed to provide a valid, objective and scientific link. Harris offers no tangible example of how this is possible.
The subtitle of Harris' book on morality states, "How science can determine human values" and the title of his TED lecture boasts, "Science can answer moral questions" but, the fact is, even secular humanist atheists, such as Massimo Pigliucci, PZ Myers, and Luke Muehlhauser have pointed out that there is no real basis for morality presented by Harris. There is only a glaring missing link in Harris' theory between "is" and "ought." The same holds true for the anonymous atheist posting comments at my blog. I thought I should post this article so that our continuous online debate could at least be referenced to a relevant article. So far, Anonymous has offered that he has a moral "system" that is based on "happiness" and Abraham Maslow's Hieararchy of Human Needs. Irrespective of morality issues, Wahba and Brudwell found little objective evidence for the priority of the ranking of needs in Maslow's list, or for the evidence of a hierarchy at all. And Geert Hofstede found the list exhibits an ethnocentric slant.
With regard to happiness, the anonymous comment poster offers that smoking is unhealthy and therefore it is immoral because it leads to an unhealthy and unhappy life: "I have proven the fact that smoking is immoral in my objective moral system, since it decreased the happiness of Hitchens."
But this view is problematic on many fronts. Firstly, most smokers understand the dangers of smoking, but they are willing to trade long term health for a short-term nicotine high and other perceived benefits. On what philosophical basis can a secular humanist claim the latter is more moral than the former? Anonymous would offer a pragmatic answer, that long-term health is a prime consideration and a maximal priority. What Anonymous has failed to understand is that he is merely offering a subjective opinion at this point. Anonymous has failed to demonstrate why long-term health should be considered a moral foundation of right and wrong and not merely a pragmatic observation. He has stated that smoking is "wrong" in his opinion, but he has not offered one single objective example of why "unhealthy" = "Immoral" according to his beliefs.
Christopher Hitchens' bohemian lifestyle
A case to consider is the late Christopher Hitchens. Christopher Hitchens, a famous atheist writer and philosopher, chose a certain philosophical and self-destructive lifestyle, "leading a bohemian existence as a writer..." and this was an influence that ultimately led to his premature death by cancer. According to commonly accepted definitions of the bohemian philosophy of life, "Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people." Passionate individualism, free expression and a disregard for traditional moral mores are all acceptable and even celebrated attitudes. An atheist bohemian in particular might place a great deal of philosophical value in knowing that there are others like him. He might feel a sense of support and philosophical significance in living an unhealthy and hedonistic lifestyle simply because it contradicts the "heard mentality" and there is no objective reason, in accordance with secular atheism, why his lifestyle and values should be be considered any less moral than the moral values of a pragmatic, utilitarian scientist who refuses to smoke for health reasons. And which secular atheist can authoritatively claim that the sum total of happiness gained in a long life as a moral conservative is greater than the sum total of happiness gained in a short-but-intense hedonistic bohemian lifestyle? Based on which objective reference point would secular atheists claim that Niel Young was wrong?: "It's better to burn out than to fade away."
What I find a bit ironic is that Anonymous claims that smoking is immoral, yet he suggests that a lifestyle that embraces smoking and bohemianism is not necessarily immoral: "I have never claimed that his life was immoral." This reminds me a bit of the moral confusion of a comment poster named Reynold. This atheist agreed that "bestiality is immoral on all occasions and not morally acceptable on any occasions", yet, when PZ Myers states, "I don’t object to bestiality in a very limited set of specific conditions" without defining what those conditions are, Reynold remarkably claims, "He's responded to you all that he needs to." When I asked PZ Myers his opinion on bestiality I specifically asked if he believed it should be legal. Instead of a straight answer using moral terminology, he did not even state his opinion on the legal question, but attempted to offer a "not for- not against" ambiguous mish-mash of an answer. Because he takes a situational approach to the issue, it seems Myers' opinion more closely resembles that of the Peter Singer than that of PETA. Reynold has yet to acknowledge that his hard-line moral stance against bestiality is different than Myers' situational approach.
Myers' situational approach, at least what we can make of it, leans towards aspects of pragmatic and utilitarian views of morality. These views are ultimately based on a concept of defining what "the greater good" is for the "greatest number of people." As you can imagine, minorities can end up with the shorter end of the stick in this scenario. Questions arise, "Who is to decide how the "greater good of society" is defined? The government? Who has granted such authority? This question helps to discern one of many distinctions between philosophy and science.
The primacy of philosophy in ethics
Philosophy holds metaphysical primacy over science in the area of ethics because, for one thing, philosophy is more objective on a basic metaphysical level. Science today is based on methodological naturalism, a presupposition that God and the supernatural do not exist. Philosophy holds no such presuppositions, nor does it have to. Though philosophy often does depend on empirical observation, it does not depend on science or any specific scientific method or presupposition. Science, however, does depend on its philosophical presuppositions and accepted principles of the scientific method.
Anonymous at my blog has offered that the "greater good" for each person is somehow based on long-term physical health. I could argue philosophically and logically that the central meaning of life is not to merely to live a long and healthy life. I would argue that, as a Theist, there are much greater purposes in life than this. And, even from an atheist perspective, what if a secular humanist would prefer to live a hedonistic lifestyle, even though this type of lifestyle can be a bit self destructive? For one secular humanist a short and hedonistic life may be preferable to a longer life seen to be more boring. What philosophical objective basis can Anonymous offer to challenge this choice? Science cannot define the nature of "true happiness" or what "the most philosophically significant happiness" would look like, because science does not speak this metaphysical language and cannot address these questions.
The world has witnessed the result of atheistic secular utilitarian-based ethics. I saw the Nazi gloves and lamp shades made with human skin in a museum in Kyiv Ukraine. When there is no "speciesism" and humans are considered to be not much different than rats, then all bets are off ethically. I have outlined how the theory of macro-evolution, coupled with atheistic secular humanism, allows for a logical justification of racism and genocide in accordance with utilitarian pragmatism.
Though Anonymous is convinced there is an objective basis for morality and has spent several days attempting to validate his opinion, he has yet to offer one single valid example of how "is" is connected to "ought" as an objective moral standard. And, though Reynold is convinced bestiality is not acceptable under any circumstances, he too has not offered any objective basis for claiming it is morally wrong as a secular atheist. There are two basic secular positions on this subject and both offer subjective foundational opinions.
Individual rights versus utilitarianism
The two main positions regarding bestiality are, first, the animal rights position defending animals against possibly harmful actions, as defended by organizations such as PETA, and, second, the utilitarian position defending the potential for mutual non-harmful pleasure, as defended by Princeton's "Distinguished Professor" Peter Singer. The first case is subjective morally for a number of reasons. In nature we see interactions of various species between extremes of playing together and mauling each other. If the question of morality never comes up with respect to harmful actions between other species, why should it come up when considering actions between humans and other species? Peter Singer refers to this kind of prejudice as speciesism. And, if farm animals are regularly butchered in meat factories, why does it suddenly become an issue when farm animals might be used in a situation that is much less harmful, possibly even enjoyable for the animal? As a theist, I hold to the "human exceptionalism" position and believe that bestiality is never acceptable morally. As a theist, I have a logical basis for human exceptionalism with respect to my worldview. However, as Singer has pointed out, secular atheists have no such logical basis for this hard-line distinction.
The present utilitarian defense of bestiality stems mainly from a reconsideration of Otto Soyka by Peter Singer, as described in Singer's "Heavy Petting" article : "But sex with animals does not always involve cruelty. Who has not been at a social occasion disrupted by the household dog gripping the legs of a visitor and vigorously rubbing its penis against them? The host usually discourages such activities, but in private not everyone objects to being used by her or his dog in this way, and occasionally mutually satisfying activities may develop." What is ironic is that PETA claims it is defending animal rights by taking a strong stance against bestiality, while another animal rights organization, the ARNC, has honored Singer with an induction to their honorable "Animal Rights Hall of Fame" herein described: "The U.S. Animal Rights Hall of Fame recognizes individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of animal rights in the United States for at least ten years." Perhaps ARNC believes that Singer is helping out with "animal liberation" and giving animals the right to a wider range of pleasures.
As you can see, the question of secular morality is fraught with problems because there is no objective standard or reference point. And there are many examples of atheists in denial who are simply unwilling to admit that no such standard is available in accordance with their beliefs. Perhaps, some day, the conviction that there is a universal and objective basis for morality will help them to consider that God does in fact exist. Because, only if God exists, according to this reference point there is an objective and absolute basis of morality. In this article I've presented a few reasons why science cannot answer moral questions grounded in a logical framework. The question of morality is one that stirs up difficult facts and passionate emotions, and this is why William Lane Craig's moral argument for God's existence is so effective.
The more desperate secular atheists become in their attempts to justify Scientism and a valid secular moral system, the more apparent the truth of God's existence becomes. If they were objective on this issue, then they would simply acknowledge, "Yes, there is no agreed-upon universal basis or system of secular morality, but we'll do the best we can." Instead of this, there is apparently a deep need for moral justification based on some heretofore unknown objective standard. Theists already know what that standard is, the loving and just nature of the living eternal God. If you would like to weigh in on this debate, do post a comment in the blog discussion. The Apostle Paul advised people to test all ideas. Though free and open debate is not possible in most public schools and though most secular institutions do not invite it, it's possible here and quite welcome.
Tags: corruption in science, failure of Scientism, failure of atheistic secular moral systems, the failure of utilitarian ethics, argument for God based on morality, atheists in denial, why science cannot answer moral questions, Sam Harris TED presentation on science and morality, Wahba, Brudwell, Abraham Maslow's Hieararchy of Human Needs, morality and happiness, moral is and ought, utilitarianism and the greater good of society, distinctions between science and philosophy, philosophy holds metaphysical primacy over science